Originally published in the Monterey Herald.
By JOHN DEVINE Herald Staff Writer
Battling a flu that should have kept her in bed, Jackie Nicora stood in the dugout, keeping her distance from her teammates.
Feeling achy and running a fever, Nicora didn't warm up, choosing instead to preserve as much energy as possible before getting behind the plate.
With just one reserve on the Stevenson roster that day in early April and without another experienced catcher, her options were limited.
"Being a senior, I had to be a leader," Nicora said. "I couldn't leave my teammates. If I suited up, maybe it provides a little inspiration.''
It may have turned Stevenson's season around.
The Pirates snapped a three-game losing streak that evening with a 7-5 win over Pacific Grove that took 13 innings.
"Her leadership skills didn't emerge until then," Stevenson coach Sam Garcia said. "It was a big turning point for her. That's when we turned a corner."
The Pirates didn't lose another Mission Trail Athletic League game in defending their title and reached the Central Coast Section Division III championship game for the first time.
"She came out this year a lot more fired up," Stevenson pitcher Caroline Main said. "Knowing it was her senior year, she wanted to go out on top."
Leadership qualities aside, it was Nicora's play at the plate - and behind it - that led to being named The Herald's Softball Player of the Year.
"As the season ended, there are things that don't get accounted for," Garcia said. "You do not get points for chemistry and character. That's Jackie."
There was no mistaking her presence in the lineup, as Nicora hit .540 this year, driving in 16 runs while scoring 18 in 23 games.
Nicora had a knack for the dramatic during the regular season. In the title-clinching win over Pacific Grove, she drove in all three runs with a pair of two-out hits.
"Either she set the table or brought in the game-winning run," Garcia said. "She got the job done."
From the moment Nicora arrived on the Pebble Beach campus as a freshman, she made an impact.
An outfielder on her travel team, she volunteered to be a catcher when it became apparent no one else was willing or able to put on the tools of the trade.
"There was no one else," Nicora said. "I was a little nervous, even kind of scared. But once I got back there, I liked it. You're in every play. You have to be ready. I like the action.''
Over the course of four years, Nicora developed into one of the section's best defensive catchers. Next season she plans on playing for Santa Clara University - in the outfield.
Her prowess behind the plate limited the options of opponents on the base paths. Seldom did a ball get past her. At times, she called pitches.
"If she didn't like what I was doing, she'd come and make a suggestion," Main said. "She was the first one to step up. She kept herself involved."
Her instincts were unparalleled. Deceptive on the bases, Nicora wasn't afraid to take the extra base or hit to the opposite field.
"I'm thinking and she's already reacting,'' Garcia said. "That's stuff you can't coach."
Her attitude was contagious on a team filled with underclassmen. Just two seniors started for the two-time MTAL champions.
"There was some added pressure for the returning players,'' Nicora said. "But I think the two freshmen (Megan Volpano and Dana Prelsnik) made things easier. They didn't feel the pressure. We kind of rallied behind them."
No doubt having two freshmen hit over .400 enabled Nicora, who was hitting fourth, to see better pitches. She had 27 hits in just 23 games.
Still, the chemistry Nicora developed with Main was critical in Stevenson becoming one of the elite teams in the section.
"I loved catching Caroline,'' Nicora said. "When I look back, one of my greatest memories on the season was working with her."
Oh there are others, although Nicora hasn't had much time to look back. The day after the Pirates season ended, she graduated.
Last week she was back in center field for her travel team.
"I haven't reflected on it yet,'' Nicora said. "I still can't believe we made it that far. Looking back, it was so much fun. There wasn't a lot of pressure because no one expected it.''
Yet, an inkling of what the future might hold for Stevenson came during that 13-inning affair in which a depleted roster and a sick catcher managed to pull out a win.
"I saw it as a turning point,'' Nicora said. "We never gave up. Our confidence took off."
The Pirates were oblivious to the playoff pressure. Even after stunning Live Oak to reach the CCS finals, no one stuck around to see who their opponent in the next round would be.
"The playoffs were a blast,'' Nicora said. "We spent a lot more time together. We were the only one's still practicing. All around campus, we were getting support.
"There are a lot of memories,'' she added. "I'm sure when things slow down, I'll look back on the season. A chapter in my life is over. But I'm excited about starting another."