Cache Valley softball players Jessica Touchard, Ashlynn Sparks and Shaylee Davis have all taken different journeys to compete in the sport they love, but have all arrived at the same desired destination.
You see, all three local athletes have signed with junior college programs — Touchard, a recent Mountain Crest graduate, with the College of Southern Idaho; Sparks, a recent Preston graduate, with Grays Harbor (Washington) College; Davis, a recent Sky View graduate, with Northland (Minnesota) Community & Technical College.
“It means a lot to me, especially since my senior year was canceled,” Sparks said. “I have another two years to play, which softball is my all-time favorite sport. I had a really hard time with it being canceled this year, and a bunch of friends and I, we found out during school and we went and cried. It was really heartbreaking at first, but then I had the opportunity to sign and play an extra two years, so I was really excited. And the coach gave me an awesome opportunity. The positions I like playing were open.”
Indeed, Sparks had to deal with the heartache of having her entire season halted due to COVID-19. Unlike most high school programs from the valley, the Indians didn’t play a single game during the 2020 campaign.
Preston returned six starters, including a few who have been impact performers at the varsity level since they were sophomores. The daughter of Tupuai and Michael Sparks was looking forward to helping her team have a breakthrough season.
“I had no doubt it would have been one of our best seasons by far,” she said. “... We have a really strong bond, all of the girls on the team. We like to hang out. We all loved each other, we all trusted each other. ... Last year we were pretty strong. A lot of the games we lost were by a run. Those are a little rough, but coming back this year we were all stronger. All of us took the time in the offseason and we worked harder. We all spent extra time in the cage (hitting), so we were all ready to play.”
This would have been Sparks’ third season as a starter for the Indians and she was coming off a big junior season. No. 4 was Preston’s best hitter a year ago as she batted .492 with 10 doubles, one triple, one home run, 19 RBIs and 20 runs. Sparks earned first-team Herald Journal All-Valley honors as a utility player.
The Preston native parlayed that success into interest from a handful of junior college programs. Sparks was supposed to take a recruiting trip to Grays Harbor during spring break, but was unable to because of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, the Chokers did a great job of selling their program to her.
“I liked how his team would reach out and talk to me,” said Sparks, who also competed on Preston’s volleyball team as an right-side hitter, where she contributed with 41 kills, 21 blocks and 30 digs in 46 sets as a senior. “Some of their older girls we’re saying if I needed help with anything (they would be there for me), so I loved that. And the coach is also really nice and he’d call me and talk to me about the campus and what there was for schooling, so it was really nice having them reach out and show their interest in me.”
Grays Harbor, which competes in the Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC), won four of nine games this spring until things came to a screeching halt.
Sparks would have played a few different positions for Preston this spring, but primarily at third and first base. Sparks made it a point to thank her coaches for their support “and having them always be there and helping me whenever I needed it, and my family for pushing me to be the best I can.”
Like Sparks, Touchard and the Mustangs didn’t get to play a single game this spring. The daughter of Marilyn and Todd Touchard was hungry to help Mountain Crest improve on a successful 2019 campaign, in which it finished second in a very tough Region 12 and won two games at the 4A State Championships.
“I feel bad for the kids who this was their last time to be on the field and play with those who they love, whereas I know that I’m going to be going up and playing for an amazing team and an amazing coach, and still play the game that I love,” Touchard said. “So it wasn’t as hard for me. Even though I love the girls (at CSI), I still feel awful. I would have loved to play with (the MC girls) one last time in a game. ... I think we would have been able to go far this year. We had an amazing team.”
Touchard was also recruited by some other junior colleges, including Salt Lake Community College, and received some attention from Weber State, where her older sister, Abby Bowcutt, played. The Hyrum native went on an official visit to SLCC, but didn’t want to live in a big city.
Conversely, Twin Falls, Idaho, felt like the right fit for Touchard.
“It felt like Logan in a way,” Touchard said. “It really brought back me back to a hometown vibe, and the whole team up there is like a family. And when I’m looking at softball, I want it to be a family. I don’t want it to be just kids playing together. ... (The CSI players) ... really get along well and I love the coaches up there, and it’s just a nice overall vibe.”
CSI is one of the best programs in the Scenic West Athletic Conference (SWAC) year in and year out. The Golden Eagles went 38-22 a year ago, including 27-13 in conference play, and were 14-6 — 7-1 in the SWAC — when play was halted this spring.
A trio of local standouts played for the Golden Eagles this season in Ridgeline graduates Mailee Jensen, Mya Washington and Brooklyn Anderson. Jensen was CSI’s top pitcher as she led the team in innings (46.2), strikeouts (31) and complete games (three), while Washington was batting .447, with 14 RBIs, 11 runs and six extra-base hits.
Touchard was coming off a very successful summer of 2019 competing for the Rampage and Batbusters traveling squads. She excelled as a pitcher and at the plate as she batted .452 this past summer. Touchard was able to compete at the USA Nationals in 2018 and 2019.
“I would go out to California or Colorado and the competition there is outstanding, so you have to be mentally prepared for that or you’re going to get crushed,” she said. “So whenever I get back here, I have the same level of intensity and it not only pushes me, but when I get around everybody else, then they want to push themselves to (be better players).”
Touchard, who was recruited by CSI as a pitcher and potentially as a hitter, elected not play her junior season at Mountain Crest. She instead focused on getting ready for the upcoming summer season, which involved traveling to Colorado on a monthly basis during the spring.
However, Touchard was one of the Mustangs’ best players as a sophomore as she garnered honorable mention all-valley honors. She batted .462 during her prep career and pitched more than 20 varsity innings as a sophomore.
Meanwhile, Davis was able to attract the attention of junior college programs through her experiences competing at the club level for Ambush, which is based in the Tremonton area. The daughter of Sherrie and Courtney Davis made it a point to thank Ambush coaches Lori Cronin and Sonny Jensen for helping her receive this opportunity.
Davis is currently showcasing her talents for the Avengers, a U18 club team based out of Salt Lake City.
“It means a lot to me,” Davis said. “College ball has been a goal of mine since probably about my third year (of 10) of playing softball ... and growing up, I was never on any super good teams. I got very used to losing, but I still loved the sport and I always would continue on with it, even after our losses and the hardships. And I’m proud of where I am at the moment going and playing college ball, even if it is just at a junior college.”
The Richmond native was also recruited by a few more JUCO programs and went on a visit to another school in Minnesota. Ultimately, Davis felt a bond with Northland head coach Paul Peterson and liked the direction his program has headed. The Pioneers struggled in Peterson’s first two seasons at the helm, but made huge strides a year ago as they went 26-17, including 20-4 in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference — the second-best winning percentage in the 14-team league.
Northland was 1-5 this spring — all non-conference games — before play was halted.
“I was mostly looking for a school that had a good team and a team that I could gain some experience from because I was just looking at junior colleges, so I wasn’t really going to get my degree there,” said Davis, who was recruited by the Pioneers as a first baseman and potentially as a pitcher. “And Northland had really good potential, but their last (full) season they did a really good job. I liked the coach. He was always texting me and he was always talking about how involved the girls were, and I was able to get in contact with some of the girls and I really bonded with them. And I knew that school was the right one for me, even though it is halfway across the country.”
Davis played high school softball for Sky View as a junior, primarily for the JV squad, and she sparkled offensively. In the 12 games available on maxpreps, she batted .520 and led the JV team with 11 RBIs. Davis also pitched nearly 20 innings, which ranked second on the squad.