Shortly after the Forney High (Texas) Jackrabbits won the 2018 State 5A softball championship last May, Madison Galiano accepted the championship trophy at home plate.
Her mind was flooded with emotion as she triumphantly held it high, and kissed it. At one point, she almost dropped it, but she wasn’t about to let go of the wooden object that symbolized all she and her teammates had been through to experience this moment every athlete dreams of.
“I was overwhelmed with joy,” recalled Galiano, a junior infielder, and backup catcher. “It was amazing to see how far we actually got. Just the fact we reached our goal, and did it for a reason bigger than ourselves made me super happy.”
As she celebrated with her teammates following the 4-1 victory over Richmond Foster that clinched the finals, tears filled Galiano’s eyes. It was more than just the trophy, or even the exhilaration of winning the school’s first state softball championship, that made the experience so gratifying. She was remembering another moment from the year before, a night that changed not only her life but the lives of her teammates.
On May 16, 2017, Galiano’s twin sister, Emily, was killed after being struck by a car driven by one of her teammates following a team dinner. As everyone was preparing to leave, one of the girls didn’t see Emily walking behind her vehicle as she backed out of the driveway.
The Jackrabbits were scheduled to play Mansfield Lake Ridge in a regional semifinal series later that week. Head softball coach Pat Eitel was faced with the unenviable task of pulling a team together after a tragedy and determining whether or not to continue playing.
The best thing to do, he realized, was to leave it up to the team.
Play For Em
“Ladies,” he told them, “If you all don’t want to play, there’s no disgrace. What we’ve gone through is unbelievable. I’ll back you 100 percent.”
The decision was unanimous: they would not only play but dedicate each game and season moving forward to Emily and her memory. Their resolve became a team motto: Play for Em.
“The night after the accident, we all got together and dedicated everything we did (to Emily),” Galiano said. “Not just the softball season, (but) everything we did in life, we wanted to dedicate to her.”
The Jackrabbits defeated Lake Ridge in an emotional series before bowing out to The Colony in the regional finals.
“We ran out of gas,” Eitel explained. “The kids weren’t getting a lot of sleep, and the emotions were really coming out.”
Word of the accident spread throughout Texas and other states. Dozens of people sent words of encouragement to Galiano, her family, and the team. Two girls drove several hours from West Texas to lend their support. Even the Texas Rangers sent flowers. The outpouring of love and encouragement kept Galiano and her family going in the weeks and months following the accident.
“We had people helping us go to the store, people would bring us stuff,” Galiano said. “We had an overwhelming amount of support from the community, especially the softball team. We basically had a whole other family that pushed us through, helped us keep going.”
The 2018 season began with the Jackrabbits more determined than ever to take the next step and win a championship. As they would discover, the road contained numerous peaks and valleys. The team went 8-6 through their first 14 games, including a 2-4 mark during a tournament in Houston that featured several tough 6A teams.
“I told the kids even though we were 8-6, we were ready,” Eitel said. “All the kids felt we were, too. We knew we could play with anybody.”
He was right. The Jackrabbits didn’t lose another game that season, reeling off 25 consecutive victories to finish 33-6.
But the state tournament wasn’t without its share of dramatic moments. Savanna DesRochers, who made the All-state team as a pitcher last season, came to the plate in the top of the seventh in the championship game with two outs and runners at second and third. On a 0-2 pitch from Richmond Foster senior Kacie Pryor, DesRochers hit a two-run single that put the Jackrabbits ahead for good.
Just before she swung, a butterfly fluttered overhead. During the regional semifinals following Emily’s death the year before, Galiano’s father was snapping pictures when a butterfly landed on his shoulder.
In the bottom of the seventh, Foster loaded the bases with nobody out against DesRochers, who turned the team’s third double play of the game on a liner up the middle.
“It’s funny because I was thinking in my head, ‘What if this girl hits a line drive back at me? That would be awesome’,” DesRochers said. “The next pitch, she hit a line drive back at me.”
What followed was a moment worthy of a national highlight reel. The next batter hit a foul ball that appeared to be out of play. But senior left fielder Caroline Tedder raced after it, making the catch just before she slammed into the railing. Her momentum carried her over the top of the rail, knocking off her glasses. But she held on to the ball, preserving the game and the state championship.
“I was in shock (after the catch),” DesRochers said. “Then it hit me; we just won!”
Before her death, Emily had worn the number 6 on her softball jersey. As Eitel and his team thought about the championship game and the journey that brought them there, they couldn’t help but see the irony in several of those crucial moments: the number of losses for the season (six), the three double plays during the title game (six outs), a butterfly floating over the field, the incredible catch by Tedder … It was almost as if they could feel Emily’s presence, smiling and cheering them on.
“She was there, all the way around,” Eitel said. “Things just went our way.”
This season, the Jackrabbits are off to a great start in defense of their title. They have a 14-2 record as of March 11 and are first in District 13-5A. Galiano is batting .347 with a .474 OBP. DesRochers is 7-1 with a 1.29 ERA and 74 strikeouts. The National Federation of State High School Associations recently selected the team to receive its Section 6 National High School Spirit of Sport Award.
But, as Eitel is constantly reminding his team, repeating will be even more challenging.
“I told the kids when we won the championship, we were the 25th 5A team to (accomplish that),” he said. “You would think there were hundreds. When we put it in that perspective, the kids went, “wow”. Now, you’re talking about a handful of teams in all the divisions who’ve ever won back-to-back.”
Whether they repeat or not, each girl will carry the promise made the night after the accident: to play their hearts out for Em.