To understand how Washington senior Sis Bates came to be voted the greatest college shortstop in history, you have to go back to when she was 5 and started playing Wiffle ball with her big brother and his friends.
“I was kind of a crybaby when I was younger,” Bates said. “If I lost, I would cry, because I would get so angry. My mom would say, ‘Sis, I’m not going to let you play with them if you keep coming in crying.’ That’s what would happen every day, but that’s when I really fell in love with sports.”
She continued to play and get better every day in the yard, where her competitive spirit shined through. Soon, she was holding her own with Jimmy, two years older than Sis, and his friends, whether it was Wiffle ball, basketball or football.
Nearly two decades later, Bates is preparing for the final season of a remarkable career with the Huskies, tentatively scheduled to begin the second week of February. She is a two-time first-team All-American, member of the U.S. national team, two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year and 2019 Seattle Female Sports Star of the Year.
Bates is adept at deflecting credit to teammates, and is too busy trying to get better to get caught up in the accolades, though her fielding and batting stats are extraordinary — including committing only two errors the past two seasons combined.
But what also sets Bates apart is her unabashed joy on the field and her seemingly endless energy.
Bates, whose given name is Nicole but has gone by Sis almost her whole life, is in constant motion on the field. When she’s not stealing hits from UW opponents, she’s talking, smiling, laughing and even dancing.
“You can’t get her to shut up, but it’s good,” said UW senior second baseman Taryn Atlee, who dances with Bates between innings.
Older brother Jimmy has seen his sister’s passion from the beginning.
“When she was out on the field, you could just see the genuine enjoyment that she got from the game,” Jimmy Bates said. “She always brought an energy to the field that was pretty much unmatched.”
Jimmy said he had no idea when he was playing Wiffle ball with Sis that she would be this good. They were just playing and having fun, but those games proved invaluable, according to UW softball coach Heather Tarr.
“Her ability to play the game — the savvy athleticism, the internal clock knowing how much time she has, her vision — all those things are intangibles she probably developed in the cul-de-sac playing Wiffle ball with her older brother,” Tarr said. “Those aren’t things we taught.”
Falling in love with the Huskies
Tarr was watching a 14-under tournament in Northern California nearly a decade ago when something caught her eye.
“I see this gal covering second, third, going left, right, laterally, pretty fluidly, and I’m like, ‘Dang, this chick is pretty athletic,’” Tarr said. “And she was wearing No. 22, and that’s my number; anybody who wears 22, I always look at them.”
While Tarr was watching, a player she had coached at the University of the Pacific approached her.
“She says, ‘You’ll never guess, but that shortstop wants to go to UW,’” Tarr said. “I am like, ‘OK, this could be a good fit.’ … She was tiny, and it was kind of a leap of faith, but she really wanted us and we really wanted her. And here we are, more than eight years later, with a gem of person and a great player.”
It was Washington’s good fortune that Bates watched the Women’s College World Series for the first time in 2009 when the Huskies won the title.
“I didn’t even know I could play in college until I watched that year,” Bates said. “It just so happened that Washington won and I said, ‘Dad, I need to go there.’ He was, ‘Yeah Sis, good luck.’ Not only were they successful, but I could tell they had unconditional love for each other. I think that’s what really drew me to UW.”
Bates grew up in Ceres in Central California. By the time she was in high school, it was clear she needed a step up in competition from the local club she was playing for. So when Bates was 15 she joined the elite Firecrackers out of Huntington Beach in Southern California, 345 miles away.
Most weekends, Sis and father John would make the 690-mile round trip so she could play with her new team.
“I grew, not only as a player, but as a person, doing that,” said Bates, who as one of three children relished the one-on-one time with her father on the long drives. “I’m so thankful my family was able to do that. Going from Northern California to Southern California, the (increased) competition is unreal. I learned so many things, but I think the biggest thing I learned was time management.
“I had to get my homework done during the week, so I could be free on the weekends. That, and the competitiveness, prepared me for college. So when I got here I don’t think it was that much of a culture shock. I think playing for (the Firecrackers) had a huge impact on me.”
On her mitt, Bates has penned a quote from one of her coaches with the Firecrackers, Norm Perez, who passed away while Bates was on the team. It reads: “Keep it simple.”
“He would always tell me, ‘You need to calm down, keep it simple. It’s a simple game,’” Bates said. “Hearing that over and over, it was like, ‘Why am I overcomplicating things?’ Now that I’m here, it still rings true.”
Talent, determination and competitiveness
If you passed Sis Bates on the street, you might not suspect she was a star athlete. At 5 feet 4, she is physically unimposing. But she’s impossible to miss on the field, seemingly always getting on base and playing defense that might be unmatched in college softball history. Check out the montages on YouTube of her playing defense if you don’t believe it.
“She is always going to make the easy plays and then she wows us with the plays where you are, ‘How in the world did she get there?,’” Atlee said. “She just does it. I wish I had an answer on how she does it.”
How does she do it?
“She is physically gifted,” Tarr said. “She’s got the foot speed, the athletic tools to pretty much compete at every sport. No disrespect to UW women’s basketball — but she could probably play on that team and be a contributor.”
Add the natural competitiveness that has always defined her with the dogged determination to get better, and you’ve got a star.
“I think what sets her apart is that if you beat her, she wants you to do it again, because she’s not going to get beaten twice the same way,” Jimmy Bates said. “If a ground ball ate her up, she would say, ‘Try to hit that spin again’ and she would do it, do it, do it until she conquered it and knew she could do it in a game. Her mentality is, ‘You might have gotten me in this one, but it’s not going to happen again, and I am going to train so that it doesn’t happen again.’ I think that’s what sets her apart.”
A great fit
Bates hates losing, and in her time with the Huskies, she hasn’t experienced much of it.
In her four seasons, the Huskies are 177-35, reaching the Women’s College World Series semifinals twice and making it to the title series in 2018. UW was ranked No. 2 in the country last year when the season was canceled in March because of the pandemic.
Bates, of course, has been a huge part of the success, with her fielding and hitting. Tarr said Bates, the team’s leadoff hitter, is a “triple-threat” hitter because she can get on base by bunting, slapping at the ball or hitting with power. In June, in a vote conducted by ESPN, she was named the top college shortstop of all time, joining UCLA’s Rachel Garcia as the only two current college players on the team.
When Bates arrived at UW, the Huskies had an All-American shortstop, senior Ali Aguilar, so Bates played second base, starting every game and hitting .338 while being named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team.
Tarr worried a bit how Bates would do returning to shortstop for her sophomore season.
“Sometimes when you put a player at second base, it’s hard to go back to the left side of the field, but after that first fall (with Bates at shortstop), you’re thinking, ‘Whoa, how did we do this without her at shortstop?’” Tarr said.
Bates was a first-team All-American and Pac-12 defensive player of the year as a sophomore, helping UW Huskies reach the title series at the Women’s College World Series. That brother Jimmy got to watch all of it made it more special.
Jimmy, who played football, basketball and baseball at Ceres High School before going to UC Irvine, came to UW for a one-year master’s program in intercollegiate athletic leadership. He joined the softball team as a graduate assistant and lived with his sister.
“There were many moments when it would be just me and her in the Dempsey (Indoor Center), and I would be hitting her ground balls,” Jimmy said. “I would take a step back, and think, ‘Wow, this is really happening. An indoor facility at a huge Pac-12 school, and hitting your sister ground balls. How cool is this?’”
Said Sis Bates: “It was the greatest thing ever, ever, ever.”
Tough year; another chance
Bates was off to an amazing start last season as a senior, but had to miss 10 games with a concussion, the first time she had missed any games as a Husky.
“I usually played through the little nicks, but I couldn’t play through this one,” said Bates, who suffered the injury as the result of whiplash while diving for a ball. “I just focused on getting better, so I could be back with my teammates. It was kind of cool seeing them play from a different perspective, and it made me fall in love again because I could see their passion from a different perspective.”
Not long after she returned, the season ended. In 15 games, Bates hit .538 and had not committed an error (in 98 chances) after making just two as a junior.
“That’s unheard of by a middle infielder,” Tarr said.
But would that be it? Would Bates get another opportunity to win the Women’s College Series with teammates she says are best friends?
On March 26, the NCAA was meeting to determine if spring athletes would be given an extra year of eligibility. The tension, while waiting for a text from coach Tarr, got to be too much.
What to do?
A game of Wiffle ball with Jimmy, of course, along with Sis’ boyfriend and a neighbor back home in Ceres.
“It was so much fun,” Bates said.
They played and they played, with Bates checking her phone every half-inning.
“It was the best thing, because it took my mind off it,” Bates said. After playing for about 90 minutes, Bates got the good news: She was getting another season. That launched a spontaneous celebration.
“We were so excited,” she said.
So were the Huskies.