First-year Central Washington University softball coach Mike Larabee doesn’t have a career worth of memories with former Sehome standout catcher Austin Wilkerson, but Larabee’s been around long enough to learn what type of player and teammate she is.
“She’ll come out for batting practice and hang around for another hour and a half shagging balls for teammates,” Larabee said. “She is a really good teammate, and I’ve really seen her grow as a softball player.”
Six years ago Wilkerson was gracing diamonds around Whatcom County with her stellar catching ability and tremendous hitting power. She was selected the 2011 Northwest Conference Player of the Year.
Two universities and some adversity later, Wilkerson is returning to Bellingham to play for the final time in Whatcom County.
CWU faces Western Washington University in a doubleheader starting at 1 p.m. Friday, April 22, on Western’s campus.
This marks the third time Wilkerson has returned to Bellingham, and each prior two visits what was a road game felt more like a home contest, at least for the Wildcats catcher.
“Last year I was beyond shocked at how many friends and family showed and stayed through,” Wilkerson said. “When they went through the starting lineups and the announcers called my name my teammates laughed because how loud my name was (cheered). You don’t realize until you look up there, and its like, ‘Wow, everyone came.”
Mariners coach Jim Emerson is bringing his whole team Friday, and no doubt Wilkerson will have another strong contingent on hand.
The Whatcom County product has developed into quite a player during her red-shirt senior season at Central. Batting cleanup, she’s started all 43 games this spring, owns a .372 batting average and leads the team in home runs (seven) and RBI (37).
Wilkerson’s path to success hasn’t come without some road blocks, though.
She spent her first two seasons at the University of Hawaii before transferring to Ellensburg where she’s become a star player and is studying to become a teacher.
Wilkerson has helped Central to a 32-11 record and has the Wildcats atop the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings, but if it weren’t for a favorable diagnosis on a troubling back injury, Wilkerson’s senior year might have wiped away.
Last summer she noticed her back flaring up. Wilkerson got some tests done and was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis — an inflammatory disease that can cause some of the vertebrae in one’s spine to fuse together.
“It was definitely crazy, because I had never heard of it before,” Wilkerson said. “The doctor told me what it was, and I was beyond confused. It was kind of a bump in the road going into senior season having it hanging over my head. ... It’s definitely a downer, but it could be a lot worse.”
Wilkerson admitted she doesn’t play at 100 percent, but she said she’s thankful to have been blessed with a high pain tolerance.
Plus, there’s no way she’d miss out playing the final season of a sport that has meant so much to her.
“I don’t think there is anything it hasn’t given me, honestly,” said Wilkerson of softball. “Everyone learns life lessons from it, and I’ve learned how to overcome adversity and just be patient.”
The game has even helped Wilkerson cope with some of life’s most devastating moments, too.
Each game she wears two special, black wrist bands. One reads in white embroidering “Chels 44,” which is an homage to softball friend Chelsey Ebert, who died when Wilkerson was in eighth grade. The word “PAPA” in all caps is on the other armband. Wilkerson’s grandpa, who went to all her games, died midway through her high school career.
Wilkerson has worn the armbands every game since, and she lights up when teammates ask what the armbands represent.
When Wilkerson graduates, she’s hoping to return where she developed her love of the game — here in Whatcom County.
She hopes to not only teach, but become a softball coach as well, sharing the many lessons that have helped her develop into such a talent.
“I have seen her with some of the younger kids, and she always seemed to connect with them,” Emerson, Wilkerson’s high school coach, said. “Some of the kids, they are successful now because they saw what she did and what she accomplished.”