A year ago, Sis Bates didn’t know if she’d be playing at all anytime soon. The COVID-19 pandemic had canceled the Washington softball season in the spring, and there were questions if there would be a college sports season in 2020-21.
Now, she’s in the midst of a professional career, alongside four other former Huskies as a part of Athletes Unlimited.
“It’s been pretty hectic,” Bates said. “It’s felt like a whirlwind. But just being here and being settled in here, and competing every day like we have, I feel like I’m learning the routine. I’m a total nerd for softball, every day here has been the best.”
Athletes Unlimited is a women’s sports organization that has put on professional seasons in lacrosse, volleyball and softball. Late August was the start of its second softball season, where they are playing a five-week campaign in Rosemont, Illinois.
Victoria Hayward and Ali Aguilar were fresh off the Olympics in Tokyo when the season began. Along with Bates, Courtney Gano, and Taran Alvelo, they make up the Washington alums in the pro ranks.
That the option is there at all is a far cry from the uncertain landscape Bates pondered while with the Huskies.
“I really appreciate how (the league) is made for us by us,” Bates said. “I really love that, so being a part of this second season, I feel such a strong connection with the people.”
National Pro Fastpitch had been the only non-Olympics post-college option for softball players since 2004. After losing two seasons to COVID-19, it ceased operation, but even before then had its struggles with team relocations and departures. Several elite players didn’t play for the league, instead participating with barnstorming clubs.
Athletes Unlimited has been unifying across those league lines, and the former Huskies players have appreciated the league’s mission.
“It’s really one big community,” Aguilar said. “You get a chance to play with every single one of the 60 athletes, and I think that’s my favorite part. We’re like on the same team always.”
Hayward and Aguilar just returned from the Olympics, where Aguilar and USA captured silver and Canada took bronze behind Hayward. Getting back and performing well in the second season of AU softball held another special importance for them.
“The Olympics are a great experience,” said Hayward, an outfielder. “We didn’t achieve the goal we set out for, but super grateful for the experience and loved every minute of it. Now we’re entering a phase that’s a transitional time. Navigating this to be a better softball player for me, rather than the last year trying to be a better player for my teammates with Canada.”
The AU format is unique from other professional sports leagues. There are no designated teams, with a draft every Tuesday to determine the rosters for the week of games. Captains choose their teams, and they garner points — along with the individual players — based on their stats and team wins.
Entering the third week, Hayward ranks 15th in the league with 554 points. Bates is 26th, Aguilar 29th and Alvelo 56th. Gano ranks 39th.
“I’m finally able to see this together, and it shows us how strong our connections are and deeper than just the sport itself,” said Alvelo, a pitcher. “This year for all of us, it’s amazing to finally get o the field.”
Washington has historically been an excellent program. Alvelo was a part of three squads to make consecutive Women’s College World Series appearances, and Hayward played in the 2014 WCWS. Aguilar, a shortstop, has one of the most storied careers in program history.
Bates also went to three consecutive WCWS and has been lauded as one of the best defensive shortstops in the history of the sport at the college level.
She became a legend at Washington quickly, leading the conference in triples as a freshman and garnering 200 hits in her first three seasons.
It’s the last year, which, is true of every college athlete, that stalled Bates’ roll. She was hitting .529 in 15 games when the season was called short.
In the 2021 season, her last with the Huskies, she became the program’s all-time hits leader and was sixth in doubles. After losing the sport for so long, she has an even greater appreciation now at the pro level.
“I really appreciate how this is player-run,” Bates said. “Being a part of this season, I really cherish that and just playing again.”
Each of the Huskies in Athletes Unlimited was a part of building up the reputation of the program, and feels a responsibility to do the same in a new professional home. Softball’s landscape has been changing for more than two decades, and just where college players can go next has always been a question mark.
Now it’s AU’s turn in the spotlight, and at least for the group of former Huskies, it represents their connection to the sport.
“Playing for Washington, there’s such a passion and pride, representing that school and everyone before you,” Hayward said. “You’re very connected to that and never think you’ll experience that connection again. I had other professional experiences without that. I think understanding the mission of AU, you feel a community.
“The piece of me that wanted to go to Washington, I feel that investment here.”