They still lay their gloves in a neat row along the third-base line before practice, yet gather in rows after practice to give serious handshakes and fist-bumps to each coach.
They still walk out of the dugout before games and shake hands with fans after games.
Even then. Even then. Even then.
Four months after he died, the Westlake Village Oaks Christian High softball team honors every Pete Ackerman custom, still speaking like a beloved grandfather in the present tense of its late coach. The shock is gone. But the lack of a mentor standing behind the third-base line still persists.
A sign hangs in center field that reads “Peter Ackerman Field.” A poster is on the batting cage with Ackerman’s quote, “Culture before championship.” The team wears shirts with the words “#PlayForPete”.
Yet it is much more than dedicating a season, or playing for someone they have lost. There is no timetable for grief, and each ritual of the Lions is an exercise in mourning, taking comfort in those traditions after a loss.
Senior first baseman Anahi Arriola said, “It feels like a piece is gone.” “I think sometimes I can feel him, but I can’t Hear His.”
This has placed a tremendous responsibility on first-year head coach Cheyenne Coyle, an All-American shortstop at Arizona State and most recently assistant athletic director at Oaks Christian Middle School. Ackerman left impossible shoes to fill as the program’s founder, and Coyle worked lightly with the players, who told athletic director Brad Cook they wanted a lot to change after the loss of Ackerman. didn’t want to
Arreola said that Coyle took on the role of the older sister. Nurturing. And through 10 games, Oaks Christian is 9-0-1, a team that has stuck together through tragedy and healing while welcoming a new leader into the fold.
“As we continued to grow and learn who he is as a coach, it felt like home again,” Areola said of Coal.
As traditions have helped them move forward, memories have helped them absorb the loss. Spend a few minutes with the team, and you’ll come away with golden nuggets of Ackerman’s stories. Senior Justin Lambert was laughing as he recounted his favorites: meeting a random guy at Chick-fil-A on a New Year’s trip to Utah, being refused to ask for his Snapchat, and Ackerman team van Kid stopped for street running and coaxing will come back and ask Lambert His Snapchat.
Coyle, in her own way, is trying to “be like Pete” to show the players that she cares about them as people, she said. Lambert, a Howard University commitment, said she struggled with academics at times and that Ackerman would text her to check up on her grades; Coyle recently texted her that he was proud of her after a tough week, a gesture that resonated with Lambert.
After going 34-1 in Ackerman’s final season, the Lions could be overweight this year. With eight homers in 27 at-bats, Arriola is one of the top hitters in the area. And they’re deep on the mound, with Peyton LaVine pairing with junior Amelia Davis to give Oaks Christian a formidable one-two punch.
The missing presence is still there and will be throughout the years. So would gloves along the third base line, and handshakes after practice, and waving after games. Still trying to make “the one” proud.
Prystajko growing into all-round strength
Zoe Pristko of Huntington Beach was one of the best pitchers in the Southern Section last season, with Stanford posting a 0.46 ERA.
The cerebral senior has stepped up her game in a different way this year — after hitting .271 with three homers last season, she has reached a .632 average and five homers this year through eight games. As one of the best two-way players in Orange County, a short swing with little speed is propelling Pristko to a tremendous start.
“Last year, she had this stigma where she was a one-dimensional player. … I think that drives him,” Forsberg said.