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The past few months have been like a roller coaster ride for River Mahler. After batting .569 with 18 RBI and 33 runs scored as a freshman for Monroe (Washington) High, the 5-foot-8 left-handed-hitting shortstop had high expectations for her sophomore year.
The Bearcats, who got as far as their district playoffs in 2019, began holding spring practices and were gearing up for the 2020 season. Just before the team’s first game, the shutdown occurred. The pandemic also postponed the start of travel ball for River, who plays for Northwest Bullets 18U Gold. As softball slowly began to open up, the Bullets began practicing again. Now, as coronavirus cases continue to rise rapidly around the country, the season is in danger of being interrupted once more.
River is refreshingly candid about how this emotional roller coaster affected her initially.
“I didn’t handle it well, because I was so devastated that there was the potential of not having a season,” she admitted. “I didn’t know what to do with myself, because all I did was softball at the time. But it was nice to have this time to explore new things.”
It also presented the opportunity for River to spend more quality time with her family. She and her father Steve, a superintendent for a construction company, are growing a vegetable garden. They also built a chicken coop.
“We have 11 chickens now,” she said proudly.
Such resilience isn’t surprising. When River first took up softball at age four, she was already developing a competitive mindset. Her mother Tami played shortstop at the University of Washington from 1992-96. She and Steve coached River’s co-ed team, and River recalls how determined she was to get a hit even at that age.
“I remember (saying), “I’m going to hit the ball so hard”,” she said. “It would be a weak little grounder. I’d go back up and again say, “I’m going to hit it even harder”.”
River was born in Kirkland, Washington. She was named after the eight-year-old boy of a family friend. Tami remembers the hat and cowboy boots he wore, along with his lively personality.
“He was a no-shirt crazy kind of little boy,” Tami said. “I was like, “Steve, I know what we’re going to name our kid, boy or girl”. What’s funny is, I was pregnant with River and didn’t even know it.”
The Mahler's moved to Montana when River was a year old, and have shuttled back and forth between the two states much of her childhood.
“We can’t decide between Montana and Washington,” River said with a laugh.
River didn’t begin playing travel ball until first-year 14U. Montana teams didn’t travel as extensively as those in other states. When the family returned to Washington, River was excited to discover such opportunities existed. She began playing for Team Seattle before moving to the Bullets last summer.
The first thing that caught Bullets head coach Tony Campos’s attention during River’s tryout was how she handled herself.
“You could tell right away she was an exceptional athlete,” Campos said. “I didn’t see any intimidation on her part when she came to try out for our organization. She tried out for the 16U team, a very talented team. She just showed up and was ready to go.”
River, who moved up to the 18U squad this season, remembers having so much fun at that first tryout, she didn’t have time to be nervous.
“I was mind-blown at the pace they were playing at,” she explained. “I just wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t care about anything but making the team.”
Not all kids are able to easily handle the rigors of competitive tournaments and constant travel. But River seems to enjoy the experience. When college recruiters began taking notice of her in middle school before the recent rule changes, Steve and Tami were quick to insulate their daughter from the process.
“There was talk when she was young about college,” Steve said. “We sat down with somebody from a school and had a conversation. We kind of looked at each other after that and thought, “this is way too early. You need to be a kid”. We don’t put pressure on River. She loves the game, she’s been around it a long time.”
As a left-handed hitter with above-average speed, River alternates between leadoff and the No. 2 slot in the batting order. She’s primarily been a slapper but has worked hard to develop other offensive skills.
“She’s able to place the ball, and with her speed, 9 times out of 10 she’s not going to get thrown out,” Campos said. “This year, she’s gotten better with swinging away. She’s hitting a lot better gap-to-gap and also is hitting home runs.”
At shortstop, River possesses outstanding range, and has an uncanny ability to throw runners out from deep in the hole. In one game against the Beverly Bandits during the 2019 PGF Premier Nationals, she lost count of how many balls were hit her way.
“They just kept hitting it to me,” River recalled. “I was having so much fun because I got so much action. I was thanking (my pitcher) after the game.”
The biggest thrill for most players is getting a hit. While River certainly enjoys getting on base, she feels most at home on defense.
“I could take ground balls for hours a day,” she explained. “It’s fun to be out there with your team and do some yelling across the field. I love baserunning, too.”
When it comes to proper nutrition, River is the one who takes the lead. She enjoys cooking for her family and experimenting with different recipes. She works with a personal trainer once a week and works out in a gym three times a week. She also enjoys mentoring younger players, and regularly helps the younger teams in the Bullets organization.
Whether the softball season continues or not, River is determined to achieve the goals she set for herself before the shutdown.
“I would like to be as confident in my hitting as I am on defense,” River said. “That has been my goal for a couple of years now. I would love to just get up there and hit the ball.”
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