Ceres High senior Mahlena O'Neal finalized her college plans on Nov. 11 as she signed a national letter of intent with the University of Georgia.
O'Neal will continue her softball career and education at the NCAA Division-I school.
"It's still hard to believe," Mahlena said. "It just shows that if you put your mind to something and work hard anything is possible."
O'Neal celebrated her signing at George Costa Ball Park Complex on Nov. 13 with family members, friends, teammates and coaches.
"It brought back a lot of memories," said Derrick O'Neal, Mahlena's father. "That's where she started. We've had a lot of support."
"A lot of tears, smiles and laughter," Mahlena added.
O'Neal watched close friend/Ceres High teammate Nicole Bates sign with the University of Washington on Nov. 11 at Super Mom's Frozen Yogurt & More.
"To be able to experience it with my best friend, it's great," Mahlena said. "It's really special. We competed against each other in soccer before we knew each other. She was a little, fast girl. I could kick really hard. Hopefully, we meet in the World Series."
O'Neal verbally committed to Georgia between her freshman and sophomore years.
Georgia qualified for the NCAA playoffs for the 14th consecutive season, posted a 44-17 overall record and finished fifth in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference (14-9) in 2015.
"It's exciting because everybody is good," Mahlena said. "Every single time you have to bring your A-game."
"I might see her on TV," Derrick said. "It's crazy. It's a good feeling."
O'Neal joined Ceres High's varsity softball team her freshman year.
She earned first-team, all-Western Athletic Conference the past three seasons.
Mahlena helped lead the Bulldogs to their second straight Western Athletic Crown last spring.
She ranked first in the conference in homers (3), RBIs (20) and fielding percentage (1.000), third in triples (1) and doubles (4), fourth in slugging percentage (.733), and eighth in batting average (.400) and runs (9).
Mahlena batted .641 with two doubles, 16 RBIs, five runs and a 1.000 fielding percentage her sophomore year for undefeated Ceres High (12-0).
She hit .585 with one homer, two triples, six doubles, 17 RBIs and seven runs during her first year with the Bulldogs.
Mike Baisdon played an instrumental role in the growth and development of O'Neal.
O'Neal has played travel softball for Baisdon for the past eight years, including six seasons with the NorCal Firecrackers and two with the Tri-County Smash.
"He's done a lot for Mahlena," Derrick said. "He's a big reason why she's successful."
"I give all the credit to him (Baisdon)," Mahlena added. "He taught me everything."
O'Neal was an infielder and pitcher prior to being converted into a catcher at the age of 13 under Baisdon's tutelage.
"It was Mike's idea," Mahlena said. "I was resistant at first. It's a challenging position. It involves a lot. Your job is to be in charge and help your pitcher."
O'Neal signed with Georgia following a Nov. 5-8 recruiting trip.
"It was never my dream school," Mahlena said. "Once I started to talk with the coaches and players, it felt like home. We have a good group of girls coming in. The culture is different there. The people are so nice and welcoming. They support every sport."
Mahlena's name and bio were included in a press release on the University of Georgia's athletics website on Nov. 13.
"It's really exciting and surreal," she said. "It's just weird to me."
"It's been amazing to watch her grow into what she is now," Derrick said. "She put in a lot of work. Every day, we were doing something. There were times when there were dances and birthday parties but she had to play in tournaments. She missed out on a lot of stuff."
O'Neal considered quitting the sport prior to suiting up for Ceres High's varsity team in the ninth grade.
"I was going to turn in my equipment," she said. "I was burnt out. I was tired of missing social events. I made so many sacrifices. It makes it all worth it in the end. I have to keep working hard."