MALONE — Ryleigh McCauley never lets go of the ball.
In her entire visit to her former softball field at Franklin Academy.
The Huskies’ class of 2021 graduate stares at the diamond’s circle, with her goldish-brown eyes.
At the base paths. The grass.
“I don’t know — I’m kinda looking back at the four years of my life. It’s weird,” she said with a chuckle. “Yeah, it’s kind of weird, I’ll never actually play here, with my team again.
“It’s — yeah, I might cry a little bit.”
“I brought tissues,” her older sister, Alissa McCauley said.
“I’m just kidding,” Ryleigh said quickly through a smile.
Ryleigh sits on the bleacher, second from the pavement along the third baseline, in a white and black shouldered ‘Gades jersey (short for the Renegades travel team out of Syracuse).
She flips a softball, just above forehead level, watching the red linen stitching dance amongst yellow.
A soft smack, each time the dyed leather lands in her palm.
McCauley is SUNY Brockport bound and will play for the Golden Eagles next spring.
Alissa (Franklin Academy, ‘15, SUNY Potsdam, ‘19) is sat next to her.
To Ryleigh’s left is their mother, Jessica.
And to Alissa’s right, their father John.
The last time they were at the Malone field together was on Ryleigh’s senior day.
Ryleigh hugs the neon ball just under her chin, while listening to her sister talk about their favorite game.
She handles the sphere with such gentleness, such tenderness.
The fifth member of the McCauley household.
“We’re really close, the four of us,” Alissa said. “They were at everything. We’ve become a very close-knit family, because of the sport. The hours practicing and spent together in the gym, has really brought us together.”
Softball has helped Ryleigh and her sister forge friendships, too.
Ryleigh took some dust from the field, after her senior day.
It now sits in a bottle, with ‘Blood, sweat and tears on this dirt’ written on the facing.
“Having that is like having them,” Ryleigh said.
Diamond games are the McCauley family’s identity. John and Jessica met at a Little League field in the Norwood Norfolk area as seventh graders. John was a scorekeeper, Jessica a spectator.
Each of the McCauley’s have their own nickname. It’s a dugout-like culture that is reinforced most by Jessica’s father, Robert “Papa Bear” Doran. He knew his daughter, who he called “Chicken Wing” due to her smaller stature, was a match for the boy who was always called “Rooster” — due to him arriving at the baseball field every morning with his hair sticking up.
Doran was known as “Bear” in his youth, for his gruff ferocity and for constantly being told to “bear down” on the baseball mound, year after year. The “Papa” was added on, after Alissa was born in Potsdam and Ryleigh, in Malone.
As a grandfather, between Ryleigh and Alissa, he’s watched dozens upon dozens of softball games. When it’s time to watch Ryleigh, he brings his animal whistle. Whenever McCauley — a 2021 All-Northern Athletic Conference First Team pitcher — would record a strikeout or hit, he would imitate the sound of Ryleigh’s nickname.
Papa Bear calls her Coyote. Ryleigh Coyote. A nod to Wile E. Coyote, the golden-eyed, carnivorous Looney Tunes critter, relentlessly pursuing the Road Runner through the desert.
Papa Bear coined it, because he says she’s “crazy like a coyote.” A fast and calculated softball player.
Though, instead of chasing a cunning chaparral bird, Ryleigh has always been chasing greatness.
A better version of herself.
Anytime Ryleigh would visit Doran as a young child, he would give her a nickel, for each push up or sit up she finished. Doran calls it “skinnin’ money” — wealth that is gained through hard work and resilience.
It got to a point where Ryleigh needed another challenge.
“One day, she did 25 push ups and she stopped,” Doran said. “She stops and she goes, ‘OK, Papa, I think it’s time we get it up to a dime.’”
McCauley has always wanted the tougher opponent. The tougher league.
And regardless of the opponent she’s staring down through her white-templed sunglasses, there is always a fearlessness about her, Courtney Dumas, McCauley’s catcher since 5-years old, said.
Like Wile E., even if they are hit with a five-run boulder, or leave the field feeling like they’ve fallen from a 50-foot ledge, the duo believed they would get through it.
Because pain goes away, the McCauley’s say. But glory lasts forever.
“We kind of live by it. Because, her and I play — really hard — and sometimes get hurt,” Dumas said. “And everytime I would get hurt or she would get hurt, one of us would shout out, ‘Pain goes away!’ And the other would shout, ‘Glory lasts forever!’”
McCauley plays with an indifference towards getting herself or her ERA hurt. She knows her defense has her back. She’d be perfect at hunting the Road Runner, her grandfather says.
“She’d take off like mad trying to get him,” Doran said. “But first, she’d say, ‘How much skinnin’ money are you gonna give me if I catch him?’”
How many tries would it take for her to catch the Road Runner?
“No more than two.”
A teenage Alissa McCauley gets set to throw to John. He typically catches for Alissa, who has her own pitching circle in the yard at their home. Just as her grip on her pitch tightens, she feels a sting on her shoulder.
Black flies? She tries to shake it off. Another sting on her back. What is that?
She turns around and looks up.
Ryleigh is watching.
“Ryleigh was in the tree in our yard shooting me with BB pellets,” Alissa said.
“I was making you better!” Ryleigh said.
She’s playful yet insistent in her tone.
Ryleigh, who is seven years younger than Alissa, was always with her and John while they practiced pitching. At 4 years old, Ryleigh would bring her pogo stick and jump. Even if it was inside at Davis Elementary School’s gym, atop hardwood.
“And it was so unbelievably loud —,” Alissa said, her voice rising as she looked over at her sister, retrieving the stick’s volume from memory.
“That’s why you’re so mentally tough,” Ryleigh said with a jesting snicker.
“ — That I couldn’t hear my father, 43 feet away from me,” Alissa said.
It’s why, Alissa said, whenever her Franklin Academy Huskies would play, she would never be able to hear her opponent cheer themselves on.
All she would hear is a pogo stick.
“You’re welcome,” Ryleigh said.
Current Franklin Academy softball head coach Terry Collins, who coached Ryleigh in her senior year with the Huskies, and whose daughter, Brooke, played with Alissa, could see the energy from her future starting pitcher, when Ryleigh was only five.
“She never used to sit still,” Collins said. “She was always busy.”
“I’ve never seen anybody who loves sports (and) works as hard as Ryleigh does,” she added. “All year round. For the love of softball.”
For years, Ryleigh would watch her older sister throw. Each of her pitches. Every one of her mannerisms. Ryleigh soaked it all up like a sponge.
“Every tournament, every game, every practice,” Ryleigh said. “Every offseason in the gym. All of it. I’ve literally grown up watching her play.”
Doran would call Alissa “Noodle” on the mound because of her long noodly arms. She was also about 6 feet tall in cleats. These two factors combined made her a formidable power pitcher. Alissa helped the Huskies capture their third straight Section 10 Class A title in her sophomore year (2013) and was the league MVP in her senior year.
Ryleigh was called up to varsity during the 2019 softball season, her sophomore year, by then head coach Greg Marshall. She threw 97 innings for Franklin Academy in her first year on varsity and struck out 112 batters. She also finished the year with a .481 batting average.
Ryleigh credits her success with the Huskies to her ability in working through the game elements. If it rains, she needs to adjust. If the umpire has a small strike zone, she needs to adjust. And she has to do it by herself.
“You are the first line of defense,” McCauley said.
Ryleigh said this was instilled in her by Alissa. That there’s things you simply cannot control. Because of this, Alissa said, a pitcher always needs to wear a poker face. With each play beginning with the pitcher, if the opposing hitters don’t see them shaken, they get shaken.
“That’s why I haven’t pitched a game without my sunglasses on,” Ryleigh said. “It was like a mask. You could hide all your emotions, behind those sunglasses … you could roll your eyes at the umpire, you could cry a little bit. Nobody would ever know.”
While playing for Potsdam, Alissa was struck in the leg by a line drive while pitching in her senior game. Her coaches and trainers shouted from the dugout. Pleading her to sit down. But Alissa instead limped out to her centerfielder, Brooke Collins.
“They’re not taking me out of this game,” Alissa told her friend.
She couldn’t leave.
Ryleigh was watching.
“You never know when your last game is,” Alissa said. “You could tear your ACL running to first base. You could be walking your dog outside of softball and get hurt and not be able to play again.”
In the circle, pitchers need to be adaptable. The McCauley sisters know, not one game is exactly alike. It’s never the same contest.
“It’s the fact that one day you could smile and laugh, could have a great day, and the next you go home crying or go home defeated,” Ryleigh said of the sport. “One day you could absolutely be loving something and the next day it could crush you.”
Sometimes, life can come at you the same way.
The Huskies had just begun preparation for the 2020 season when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Ryleigh’s junior year.
There was buzz ricocheting through the school. An anxious cloud hung over practice.
About how the virus could affect the school system. The school year — and the student-athletes’ sports.
“And I remember, I was playing Devil’s advocate,” McCauley said. “I was the one being like, no guys, it’ll be fine. We’ll be able to play.”
The students left school in mid-March. They never came back for the year, after nationwide lockdowns went into effect.
“It was like a state of numbness. Almost like it didn’t feel real,” McCauley said. “But it didn’t feel fake. Like a state of limbo.”
Things worsened when neighboring and in-county competition for the Adirondack Diamonds’ 18U travel team out of Malone began to dry up, with each outbreak of COVID-19.
“There were moments where we were on our way to a tournament in the car, on the road for hours and … would have to turn around and drive home because it was canceled,” Jessica said.
The fire that McCauley had for softball since age 5 was dim. She wasn’t sure how to feel. About practice. About anything.
She couldn’t get better. What was the point?
She wanted to avoid the knowingness of not having softball.
“When junior year ended and we were still (in the pandemic) there were really monotonous days where I would just sleep in, wake up, do nothing, go to bed,” McCauley said.
Courtney Dumas visited McCauley during the middle of the pandemic. McCauley spoke through a window.
“It was kind of like we were having a goodbye conversation,” Ryleigh said. “Because we knew we would soon be leaving for college. And we didn’t know how long it would be.”
The Renegades, a 16U travel team out of Syracuse, picked up McCauley to play summer ball last July. That was when her mother noticed some recovery in Ryleigh’s demeanor.
“You could see a total 1-180 from quiet to kind of sad, to a spark, to being back to her normal self,” Jessica said.
When their parents finally allowed them to leave the house, the first place McCauley and Dumas went was the softball field.
“We sat on the pitcher’s mound and we just talked about — life,” McCauley said.
Dumas sent McCauley a text during the pandemic that has stuck with her up to now.
“You’re going to be my hardest goodbye.”
“I’m still a little bit bitter about losing that time,” McCauley said. “The fact that I’m going to college in a month feels wrong.”
Leading up to their final season together, the softball battery would play catch for hours.
McCauley has collected a haul of skinnin’ money over the course of the past year and a half.
“My biggest thing, for her, is that I hope she just stays — so happy. I hope she continues the love for the sport,” Dumas said. “I’ve never seen a girl crank a ball so hard — in any high school sport.”
Written on each of their gloves, as it would be for the 2021 year, was a series of phrases.
With each strike thrown, Dumas would take their neon sphere of joy from her mitt.
Her glove read: PAIN GOES AWAY.
McCauley would watch the ball travel into her glove. Any time she needed a reminder, all she had to do was look at what was there on hers.
GLORY LASTS FOREVER.