Thanks to Sierra Crocker, there is now officially a softball pipeline between Vintage High School and Valley City State University in North Dakota.

Crocker, a New Tech High senior who was the varsity catcher for Napa High as a freshman and for the Crushers the last three seasons, signed a letter of commitment with the Vikings last Wednesday in the Vintage theater.

She can thank 2017 Vintage graduate Joelle Aiello, who signed with VCSU before her senior season and started at shortstop for the Vikings this year. She and Crocker were teammates on an Envy Gold travel team before high school, were reunited at Vintage two years ago, and will now be teammates once again.

“Joelle being at her college is one of the biggest blessings,” Mark Crocker told attendees of the signing ceremony. “Joelle played last year as a freshman and got mad at her catcher and said ‘I want my friend.’ Six days later, we were on a plane.

“When she and Joelle were here playing here, they were a good tandem at catching base runners. That’s what the two of them are famous for, so next year’s going to be fun to watch.”

Last Friday, the Vikings (54-5) ended their best-ever season with a 4-0 loss to Oklahoma City – ending a 21-game win streak – and a 7-1 loser’s bracket loss to Oregon Tech at the NAIA World Series in Springfield, Mo.

Before the tournament, Aiello was named to the All-North Star Athletic Association First Team for Valley City State, the regular-season and conference tournament champion, and won a Gold Glove award. She led VCS with a .408 batting average and school records of 84 hits and seven triples, was second on the team with 63 runs scored, was third with 13 doubles and 16 walks, and ninth with 25 RBIs.

Even though she and Aiello have been off-and-on teammates since before high school, Crocker was flattered that Aiello wanted to be teammates again.

“It was a bit of a confidence boost to my ego when she started talking about me. It was a little inflated, actually,” Crocker said. “But it’s definitely a really lucky break for me because my college search had been a little difficult. (Thanks to Aiello), I got to skip a bunch of steps that people have to go through.”

Crocker made some of her own luck by posting Vintage’s second-best batting average, .415, and ranking second with six doubles, third with 19 RBIs, and fifth with 22 hits – despite playing in only 17 of the Crushers’ 21 games. She missed the last three games at a Tracy tournament after “a girl tackled her and hurt her hand,” her father said. “She wasn’t hitting too well after the injury.”

Crocker said she enjoyed visiting Valley City State and meeting head coach Michael Mook and assistant coach Jenelle Trautmann, each of whom has been there for four seasons now.

“They’re great. They’re so nice. Definitely very accommodating,” she said. “Jenelle texts us almost every day about things that we need to get done, things that need to happen before we get there.

“There are some mechanics that work at the level I’m at right now that I’m going to have to change when I get to college. College players are coached to be more prepared for better catchers. So those pickoff plays where I’ve caught runners stealing, those are going to be harder to do. I’m going to have to work on my timing. I’m also not in the best shape right now, so one of the biggest things is conditioning when I get there.”

Crocker, who had four different head coaches in high school, said during her speech that this season was her favorite with Robert Poppe at the helm.

Poppe noted during his ceremony speech that his daughter Amanda was a senior on Crocker’s team at Napa High.

“She’s a great kid who is passionate about the sport, and solid behind the plate,” he said. “One of my favorite plays in the sport is a strike-em-out-throw-em-out, and she did that in our playoff game. It was really cool to see because a lot of times people will sleep on that and steal a base.

“It was awesome to have her there, a strong, spirited individual. We’re gonna miss having her around, whipping everybody into shape.”

She also thanked travel coaches Rick Robben, Harold Heimbigner and Jason Adams “for helping me get better and to where I am now. Without them, I definitely would have quit softball and I probably would be going to (community college).

“I also really want to thank my dad. He has been the driving force in my life and my love for softball. The reason Joelle and I played together so much was because we loved playing for Rick Robben so much.”

Mark Crocker said his daughter, who started playing softball at age 9, befriended the older Aiello because Sierra always played in an older division growing up.

“When she came to Vintage three years ago, she was playing with a varsity team that she had traveled all over the place with already,” he said.

Asked if she’s looking forward to experience a different part of the country, Crocker said “Sure, because Napa is a little old now. It’s so small.

But at the same time, I’m really nervous to leave.

“I’m diabetic. I have an insulin pump, so I just do it all by myself. But it’ll be more nerve-wracking to be so far away from home.”

Crocker said she hasn’t declared a major yet, but is thinking about something business-related.

Meanwhile, she’ll be missed by the Napa Valley softball community. She has been twice honored by her first organization, the Napa Junior Girls Softball League, by having her catch the first pitch at opening days this spring and in 2017.

She doesn’t expect to get burned out after four more years as a student-athlete, either.

“I like being busy,” she said. “If I’m not busy, I get kinda complacent in what I’m doing. I get kinda depressed. Being a student-athlete this year worked really well as a senior, because senior-itis is killing me right now.”

Her father looks forward to seeing her play a third of next year’s games in Arizona – during Giants spring training.

“I don’t think I’ll catch a lot of games in North Dakota,” he said.

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