From 'Little Spaulding' to USA shortstop, Delaney Spaulding aims for 2020 Olympics
Delaney Spaulding was the fourth Spaulding sister to attend Etiwanda High School, about an hour east of the Pacific Ocean in Southern California's sprawling interior. In a region that remains the sport's cradle of talent, she was the third sister to play softball and the third to show enough talent to earn a college scholarship at a Division I powerhouse.
A starter in each of her four seasons at UCLA, she was the second sister to be an All-American.
She won't be the first to marry, the first to have a child or the first to get a job in the real world.
It isn't easy to be first at anything when you arrive fourth.
Yet still just 22 years old, the youngest Spaulding is closer to playing shortstop for the United States in an Olympics than anyone has been in quite some time. She would definitely be the family's first Olympian.
"I was 'Little Spaulding' at Etiwanda," Delaney recalled. "And then as I got older, I kind of found my name. And I was no longer 'Little Spaulding' anymore. That was pretty fun."
Of course, some habits die hard.
"She's the baby -- well, she's not the baby anymore," said Ariana Whitehouse, the next-youngest sister but still six years Delaney's senior. "I can't call her that; she's 22 now."
Delaney may be following in the footsteps of UCLA legends like Dot Richardson and Natasha Watley, shortstops who went from Westwood to Olympic medal podiums, but that doesn't mean her siblings are going to forget the toddler running around the couch to evade their mother.
"Sometimes she hates that," Danielle Spaulding, the second-oldest daughter, said of her youngest sister's lifetime status as the baby. "But we love and adore her."
Cast out of the Olympics after 2008 and left to rebuild a program almost from scratch, USA Softball set a mission to identify and develop a generation that would be ready should the sport return to the Olympic program. In the case of the player who appears increasingly likely to start in the middle of the infield when softball indeed returns to the biggest sporting stage in Tokyo in 2020, she had some help from the siblings who put up with her, mentored her and support her.
A rookie on Team USA a year ago, after she completed her junior year at UCLA, Spaulding nonetheless wasted little time staking a claim to the starting shortstop job. She started at short in the opening game of the 2016 World Cup of Softball, her first tournament with the national team. She was there when the Americans lost the final of that tournament against Japan. And she was still there later in the summer when the U.S. won a rematch against Japan in the final of the WBSC World Championship, recapturing the title in the biennial event for the first time since 2010. She's there today, as Team USA takes on Japan (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/Watch ESPN) at the 2017 World Cup of Softball.
Like any world-class player, she is far from one-dimensional. She finished her college career with 61 home runs, fifth among all active Division I players at that time and tied for third in UCLA history -- which is to say, the history of a program with more national titles than any other. But it is the way she plays the position defensively that leaves the most indelible images.
From the vantage point of both a pitcher benefitting from Spaulding's plays and a first baseman taking the throws, Ally Carda has been watching Spaulding make plays behind her for four years, the first two as teammates at UCLA and the past two in the same roles with Team USA.
"Out of the hand it may not be the greatest pitch, and they'll hit a ball in the hole," Carda said. "She's already there before you know it and throws the girl out. She makes great plays. She anticipates well, she's always there -- left, right, her range is awesome. And she has the quickest release I think I've ever seen from a shortstop."
Team USA coach Ken Eriksen, whose full-time job is coach at the University of South Florida, likes to say that if international softball is the highest level of competition, the major leagues of softball, then college softball is the equivalent of the Double-A level of minor league baseball.
"If you can get to Triple A in your senior year, you've got a good chance to go on from there, whether it's to play with to the national team program or go into [National Pro Fastpitch] and continue to develop," Eriksen said. "Delaney did a nice job of getting to Triple A in college, and now she's trying to make that next step. And it's a high step for her. But her tools and her skill set lend themselves to being able to play that kind of game.
"Now it's, are you able to mature? Are you able to handle more failure at the next level than you did in college?"
Answering those two questions can be difficult with barely two decades of life experience, not to mention the paucity of failure those two decades must contain for her to be where she is now. It is more manageable with the accumulated experiences of more than 100 years on this planet, the sum total Delaney has available to her whenever the daily group text messages begin.
Challenged by adversity? Slowed by injuries and locked in battles for playing time, Amber, the oldest of Bill and Yvonne Spaulding's four children, never had an easy go of it in four seasons as an outfielder at the University of Oklahoma. Uneasy about stepping out of a comfort zone? Knowing only that she wanted an experience that wasn't California, Danielle ended up several thousand miles away at the University of North Carolina, where she became an All-American and a dominant strikeout pitcher. Then she went several thousand miles more, pursuing the opportunity to continue playing softball beyond college all the way to a league in Austria.
And it's arguable neither of them tested themselves any more than Ariana, who dared break from a softball-obsessed family and pursue passions elsewhere. Just about the only time Delaney didn't have family in the stands for a game at UCLA was the day two years ago when Ariana gave birth to her son. But, yes, Ariana confirmed with an almost audible eye roll, family members gathered at the hospital made sure the television was on the game against Oregon.
"I learned how to be an athlete through them," Delaney said. "Having those three older sisters definitely shaped me into the person I am because they shared their experiences with me."
Of course, there is also the simple fact of being part of a family that made softball such a part of its life. Delaney wears the No. 99 and plays shortstop because she idolized Amber, who wore the number and played the position before shifting to outfield in college. Before that, before she played herself, Delaney sat on a bucket at a local field and relayed instructions from her dad to the team he coached that included Danielle. And when she wanted extra batting practice before heading to UCLA, she asked Danielle, a pitcher whose name is still easy to find in the NCAA record book (Cat Osterman is the only pitcher to ever have a better strikeout rate in a season).
The youngest Spaulding was raised in, around and on softball.
"I think that's what made her smart and growing a love for it before actually physically being able to play very well," Danielle said. "I just think she grew up on the ball field -- always throwing toss-ups to herself. She always had a ball in her hand and a glove on her hand. I can't really remember when [it became clear] she was good. ... I think it was just born in her. She loves the game, and she loves learning about the game. She's always going to continue to do that."
She has the opportunity to continue. One of the sad parts of softball's Olympic exile is that too few of the sport's extraordinary talents were able to play the game into their peak athletic years. No one saw Ashley Hansen patrol shortstop in her mid-20s. The former college player of the year at Stanford instead hung up her cleats immediately after graduation. Too few saw the best of Tammy Williams, a world champion with the USA in 2010 whose peak years were spent playing shortstop in front of an appreciative but small fan base in National Pro Fastpitch.
What an Olympic audience should see in 2020 is a 25-year-old woman in her prime playing the position as well as it can be played.
Most of the audience, at least. Ariana said the Spauldings are already talking about plans for Tokyo, not taking it for granted that Delaney will be there but ready to go with her if she is. Of course, even with a gold medal around her neck, they would still see the baby of the family.
"Danielle's the biggest one to tease me about my, quote-unquote, princess attitude," Delaney said of the label her sister had used to describe a particular set of mannerisms. "I would say [it is brought up] every day. I'm the baby of the family, so any time I say a comment or anything, they say it's Princess Delaney coming out. They always tease me."
Except that these days, when Danielle moves in the softball circles of Southern California, she hears the same question quite a bit. It isn't about her time as a dominant pitcher. It isn't about coaching at Long Beach State. What people want to know is if she is Delaney's sister.
And like all the Spaulding siblings, she's good with that.
"I'm just so incredibly proud of her," Danielle said. "Proud doesn't even do it justice, but it's the only word I can think of seeing her in those [USA] colors. It just brings chills thinking about it."