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Bates, O'Neal a winning combination
Longtime friends Mahlena ONeal (left) and Nicole Bates helped lead Ceres Highs varsity softball team to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-III crown this past spring. - photo by DALE BUTLER/The Courier

Rivals in soccer during their childhood, Nicole Bates and Mahlena O'Neal formed a tight friendship through softball.

Bates and O'Neal will be remembered as two of Ceres High's all-time greatest players.

Nicole and Mahlena led the Bulldogs to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-III championship this past spring.

"I hope so," a humble Bates said when asked if another duo would experience similar success with Ceres High in the future.

Nicole and Mahlena earned scholarships to Washington and Georgia, respectively.

The 2016 Ceres High grads both threw out first pitches while being recognized during the Ceres Youth Baseball & Softball Organization's Opening Day Ceremony at the George Costa Ball Field Complex.

"It was really humbling," Bates said. "It was a big honor for both of us. We had a lot of fun. I always get a warm feeling going back to CYB."

"It was really cool," O'Neal added. "It was an uplifting experience. It opened our eyes at how far we've come."

Mahlena played for CYBS from age 5-10.

O'Neal was coached by Vicki and Gary Wilson all five seasons.

"They really supported me," she said. "They always had my best interest in mind."

O'Neal's sport of choice was soccer prior to playing softball.

"I begged my mom not to sign me up," O'Neal said. "I was scared of the ball. It was boring. We laugh about it now."

Bates also played for CYBS for five years.

Nicole was just four years old when she teamed up with the Hackbarth sisters (Kindra and Madison) and Brett Conway during her first season of t-ball.

Conway played varsity baseball for Ceres High for four seasons.

He helped lead the Bulldogs to an 84-31-1 overall record, two Western Athletic Conference titles and four Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berths from 2012-15.

Kindra and Madison were standouts on Oakdale High School's varsity softball team. Madison and Kindra both signed national letter of intents with Fresno State.

"As a kid growing up, I always played sports with boys," Bates said. "It was normal to me. I started in baseball because I was too young to play softball. I had so much fun when I was little. I always looked forward to practice. I was definitely competitive when I was a kid, too. I hated losing. As I got older, I found out about college softball. That's when I really wanted to get better and improve my game."

Bates and O'Neal were teammates on Ceres High's varsity softball team for four seasons.

Nicole and Mahlena both had storied careers.

"We worked super hard to get to where we are now," Bates said.

"It's been very special," O'Neal added. "Sometimes, it's hard to believe."

Nicole was voted Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Softball State and Medium Schools Player of the Year.

The two-time FloSoftball First-Team All-American was selected to the Cal-Hi Sports All-State Super Elite First Team and All-State Medium Schools First Team.

Bates and 10 other elite players from across the nation were named to the Louisville Slugger Hit Club.

She also participated in the Premier Girls Fastpitch High School All-American Game.

Bates batted .571 from the plate with five homers, four triples, nine doubles, 33 RBIs, 45 runs and 14 stolen bases while striking out just five times in 113 plate appearances with the Bulldogs in 2016.

She made just one error on defense.

Nicole posted an impressive batting average of .625 with three home runs, three doubles, seven RBIs and eight runs as third-seeded Ceres High won five of six playoff games.

She blasted a three-run homer and solo shot in the Bulldogs' 5-3 win against No. 2 Oakdale in the quarterfinals.

Nicole doubled once, singled twice and scored once as Ceres High edged No. 5 Benicia 3-2 in the championship game. Bates secured the victory with an unassisted double play.

In 114 career games, Bates batted .512 (205-for-400) with 14 homers, 22 triples, 31 doubles, 102 RBIs, 171 runs, 52 stolen bases and 32 walks with just 13 strikeouts.

Nicole had an on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.356.

"There's never been any jealously," O'Neal said. "We're friends. We uplift each other."

Mahlena was selected to the Cal-Hi Sports All-State Super Elite Second Team and Medium Schools First Team.

She earned FloSoftball Second-Team All-American honors.

She was voted Western Athletic Conference Most Valuable Player.

O'Neal batted .479 from the plate with nine homers, 12 doubles, 43 RBIs and nine runs during her final season with Ceres High.

In 113 career games, Mahlena batted .462 (171-for-370) with 21 home runs, five triples, 37 doubles, 147 RBIs and 50 runs.

She struck out just 15 times.

O'Neal threw out 31 of 48 baserunners on steal attempts.

"I'm so proud of her," Bates said. "She works super hard. She deserves everything she got."

Nicole and Mahlena filled major roles in leading Ceres High's varsity softball program to 85 victories, one section championship, three WAC titles and four playoff appearances from 2013-2016.

The Bulldogs compiled a 23-5 overall record and won 11 of 12 games on their way to a first-place finish in the WAC standings for the third year in a row in 2016.

Ceres High claimed its second section title, ending a 21-year drought between championships.

"It's my all-time favorite memory at CHS," O'Neal said. "It's special to be a part of the alumni. We've had so many great players."

"It's really cool to be mentioned in the same category as those athletes," Bates said.

"I'm going to watch Sis (Nicole) and Mo (Mahlena) play in college," said Angela Durossette, who coached Bates and O'Neal at Ceres High for the past two years. "They're such good friends. They're going to be tough to replace."

"When I watch them play on TV, the pride will be so great," Ceres High pitcher Callie Nunes said. "I'm so proud of them."

"They just find a way to stand out every place they've been," said John Bates, Nicole's father.