BELLINGHAM — It was October 2019 when Dakota Brooks received the phone call that would mark the end of her pitching career.
The call was from her doctor explaining that her torn labrum, a piece of cartilage that lines the ball and socket joint of her throwing shoulder, would require surgery. A flood of emotions overcame Brooks, who just 30 minutes earlier had signed a National Letter of Intent to play softball for Division-II Western Washington University.
Brooks, a 2017 Pe Ell alumna, was coming off a stellar sophomore season at Centralia College where she went 22-8 as a starter with 157 strikeouts in 185 innings to earn her a second-consecutive Northwest Athletic Conference South Region MVP. It was one of the key reasons Western’s coach Sheryl Gilmore had recruited her.
She had partially tore the labrum in high school then fully tore it her sophomore year at Centralia. But she didn’t want surgery and she didn’t want to risk injuring it further. The doctor told her the arm would never return to 100 percent. Her pitching career had come to a close.
The problem was, she was terrified to tell Gilmore, thinking the coach would strip her scholarship once she realized Brooks couldn’t pitch anymore.
“I went up to Bellingham, did not tell my coach at all I had a hurt arm,” Brooks said. “I hid it from my entire team, I hid it from everyone. I said ‘No one can ever find out about this.’”
Well, Gilmore, of course, soon found out the truth.
“She asked me how my arm was and I said, ‘Good. How’s your arm?’” Brooks said.
Gilmore just started laughing. Though Brooks could no longer pitch, Gilmore still wanted her on the team. Now they both look back and laugh about it.
“She’s literally the nicest person on the planet,” Brooks said. “She would never take away my scholarship because my arm hurt.”
Thankfully Brooks can contribute to the team in other ways: namely by destroying softballs with a bat. Brooks has made a name for herself out of terrorizing opposing pitchers.
She was a star pitcher and hitter for Pe Ell-Willapa Valley, smashing a program record 30 career home runs. She helped the Titans capture the 2B state championship her senior year in 2017 while hitting 564 with 44 hits, 51 RBIs and seven home runs. She was a three-time All-Area and all-Central 2B League selection, including league MVP as a junior and All-Area MVP as a senior.
She signed with Centralia College out of high school and took the NWAC by storm, winning South Region MVP in both her freshman and sophomore years, She reset the Blazers’ single-season home run record as a freshman with 20 bombs and finished with a career record of 38 homers. Her prowess earned her a first-team All-American nod from the National Fastpitch Coaches Association in 2019.
It wasn’t the smoothest transition going to Western, however. She wasn’t prepared for the amount of work demanded by the program; the length of practices, the weight training at 6 a.m., the study hall sessions, the long travels to games. She had never done two-a-day practices until she arrived in Bellingham.
“It was actually a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” Brooks said. “I thought it was going to be just like Centralia, just tougher competition. It went from a six to a 50; super fast.”
The most difficult aspect of her situation was being away from her family and not being able to talk to them every day. Living in Lewis County for the first 20 years of her life, Brooks was used to having her support system close by at all times.
“If I was ever struggling, I would just go to my hitting or pitching coaches house and get the kinks out,” Brooks said. “You can ask your coach for help, but other than that you’re on your own. That was the hardest part.”
Fitting in was another struggle for the 5-foot-5 first baseman. She was one of just four transfer students on a team that had eight returning starters. It felt like the returning players might be threatened by the new incoming women who could possibly take their starting positions. She felt like an outsider.
“It was so hard,” Brooks said. “It was so, so, so hard. I wanted to come home every day.”
After fall ball, Brooks returned to campus after winter break and realized she didn’t hardly know any of her teammates. Whenever she would tell her friends about her teammates she was forced to describe them by their appearance because she couldn’t remember their names.
Once spring season began, they lost a doubleheader early on and it was something Brooks hadn’t experienced in a long time. She didn’t like the feeling and told the coach it wasn’t going to happen again. Brooks put on a mandatory team party at her house. Her teammates came over and they played board games and painted each other’s toe nails. It was a bonding experience that shaped the team from a group of women into a sisterhood.
“We became the closest girls ever, wanting to hang out all the time, wanting to be together constantly,” Brooks said. “It was like night and day.”
At The Plate
One of biggest questions facing Brooks and the rest of the newcomers was how the pitching was going to be compared to what they were used to in junior college. They got their first taste of it against the University of Washington, the fourth-ranked Division-I team in the nation, at the Fall Classic on Oct. 11-13, 2019. Brooks dug in at the back of the batter’s box during her first at-bar and expected a torpedo to come barreling toward her. The ball wasn’t as fast as she expected and she swung comically early, whiffing badly.
“I was so early it was ridiculous,” Brooks said. “I was like, ‘OK, maybe it’s not as fast as I thought it was.’”
It was then Brooks knew she could hang at this level of softball. She started to really get the hang of it during a doubleheader against league rival Simon Fraser University on Feb. 28, 2020, the 13th and 14th games of the spring regular season. Brooks went 3-for-4 in game one while hitting a home run in the first inning, followed by a 4-for-6 performance with a home run and a double in game two as the Vikings split the doubleheader.
“Those were the freakiest games of my life,” Brooks said. “No matter who they put in, no matter what they were doing, I could just feel it. I was in it, for sure.”
In a Groove
Brooks appeared in all 22 games this spring for Western before the season was canceled due to the nationwide coronavirus outbreak in mid March. The Vikings went 10-12 overall and 5-5 in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
She tore it up in the opening tournament of the spring season, recording a hit in all five games while going 5-for-13 at the plate with a triple, a home run, five RBIs and a .769 slugging percentage. It earned here a selection on the All-Tournament team.
She ended the shortened season by finishing top-10 in the conference in six different hitting categories: slugging, .667, second; OPS, 1.122, third; OBP, .455, fourth; home runs, 4, sixth; hits, 24, ninth.
She did have a couple-game slump where she just couldn’t find any rhythm. It was enough to ask her coach if she could just bunt during her next at-bat. The coach wasn’t having any of that. Brooks was a starter on the team for a reason. It was that trust that helped break her out of the slump. She’s been mashing ever since.
“When you have so much confidence in someone it really changes,” Brooks said. “I genuinely think that makes a world of difference when you have someone who believes in you like that.”