Former Ceres High softball standouts Nicole Bates and Mahlena O'Neal are both contributing as true freshmen at Washington and Georgia, respectively.
"I'm so proud of her," Nicole said. "She's competing like she always does."
"I'm not surprised," Mahlena said. "Nicole's always been one of the best players. I'm happy for her. She'll continue to do well."
Bates posted a .452 batting average with two homers, four triples, six doubles, 19 RBIs and 18 runs during the eighth-ranked Huskies' first 24 games (21-3).
"The success has come from being pretty comfortable on the field," said Nicole, who's batted in the fourth, fifth and sixth spots in the lineup and logged playing time at both third and second base. "We really have fun. That comes from the leadership we have on the team. The upperclassmen we have here are very welcoming."
Bates helped lead Washington past then No. 1 Oklahoma 1-0 on Feb. 11 and No. 2 Auburn 2-1 on Feb. 9 at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.
She singled three times against Auburn.
Nicole had one hit versus reigning national champion Oklahoma.
"That was so exciting," Bates said while talking about the upset victories. "I'm happy we won. But we have more games to play."
Nicole finished 3-for-3 with one homer, one triple, four RBIs and two runs in the Huskies' 14-1 rout of UC Riverside on Feb. 16.
Bates collected multiple hits versus Auburn, UC Riverside, Ohio State, Nebraska, Cal State Northridge, Fresno State, Northwestern and Penn State.
"Every team is good," Bates said. "You just have to keep your at-bats simple and not get too riled up in who you're playing."
O'Neal batted .282 with one homer, five doubles, six runs and 10 RBIs through the 16th-ranked Bulldogs' first 27 games.
"I'm pleased with how I'm doing," said Mahlena, who splits playing time at catcher and designated hitter with Georgia senior Maeve McGuire. "But there's always room for improvement."
O'Neal finished 2-for-3 with one double, four RBIs and one run in Georgia's 9-0 victory over Louisiana-Monroe on Feb. 17.
Mahlena homered, knocked in two runs and scored twice in Georgia's 10-1 win against Presbyterian on Feb. 15.
"The amount of work we put in is crazy," she said. "It prepares us for games. Every team that we play wants to beat us because we're a ranked team. We always have to play our best. It's very competitive."
Rivals in soccer during their childhood, Bates and O'Neal formed a close friendship through softball.
Nicole and Mahlena filled major roles in leading Ceres High's varsity softball program to 85 victories, one section championship, three Western Athletic Conference titles and four playoff appearances from 2013-2016.
Bates and O'Neal helped guide the Bulldogs to the Division-III crown this past spring.
In 114 career games with Ceres High, Nicole 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.
Mahlena batted .462 (171-for-370) with 21 home runs, five triples, 37 doubles, 147 RBIs and 50 runs in 113 games. She struck out just 15 times. O'Neal threw out 31 of 48 base-runners on steal attempts.
Bates won the Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Softball State and Medium Schools Player of the Year awards.
She was named to the Cal-Hi Sports All-State Super Elite First Team and All-State Medium Schools First Team.
She received FloSoftball All-American First-Team honors and Premier Girls Fastpitch West Regional All-American Team accolades.
She was selected to the Louisville Slugger Hit Club, which recognized 11 of the nation's top hitters.
She participated in the PGF High School All-American Game.
Nicole earned a roster spot on the 2017 USA Softball Junior Women's National Training Team.
Mahlena was selected to the Cal-Hi Sports All-State Super Elite Second Team and Medium Schools First Team.
She received FloSoftball Second-Team All-American honors.
O'Neal was also voted WAC Most Valuable Player.
"College is definitely very different from high school," Mahlena said. "The pitchers spin the ball a lot better. They have better accuracy. It causes you to be a better hitter. It's been really fun. We have devoted fans that are there every day. They know our names and where we're from."
"It's been unreal," Bates said. "It's so much fun."