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JEFF GRITCHEN , STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mission Viejo's Taylor McQuillin, left, and Alyssa Palomino have been friends - mostly - since before they were teenagers. Together they have been the driving force behind Mission Viejo's two-year run as one of the best teams in the nation. And they'll continue their fun-loving, record-setting efforts in college, at the University of Arizona.

Mission Viejo's McQuillin, Palomino are a dynamic duo

STAFF WRITER

MISSION VIEJO – The details of exactly where and when they first met remain a little fuzzy to this day, but Taylor McQuillin will never forget her initial impression of Alyssa Palomino when the two first crossed paths on the travel ball circuit.

“I didn’t really like her,” the Mission Viejo senior pitcher grinned. “She was a bundle of immaturity at the age of 12.”

Palomino’s laugh – as recognizable as her devastating swing – surfaced for the first time as she listened to her teammate rib her on a rare off day for the two softball phenoms.

“OK, how about I was 12?” Palomino replied in self-defense, as the two began to reminisce and riff on their first encounter.

The clowning is consistent, and it’s obvious the two teammates have grown to become more like sisters over the past six years.

In the process of developing such a relationship, the Diablos duo has also helped turn Mission Viejo’s softball program into a national power, ranked No. 1 in the country by MaxPreps and USA Today.

There are roughly three weeks left in their high school careers, and their focus is on finishing the season undefeated and capturing a second straight CIF-SS Division 2 championship.

Before too long, college ball will be their priority. The pair of lefties will stay together for that, too, looking to use their talents – and fun-loving spirit – to bring titles to the University of Arizona softball program.

NEWFOUND TEAMMATES

Local travel ball coach Mike Stith recalls having a conversation with his cohort, Gary Haning, around six years ago, when the two first discussed forming a 14-and-under travel squad that they could develop into something special.

Stith and Haning came across a number of local talents in their search – including current Mater Dei catcher Morganne Flores – in addition to McQuillin and Palomino.

“It was a process looking at younger kids, but Alyssa and Taylor were two that I watched regularly,” Stith said. “You can’t miss Alyssa. I always joke with her, when she walks in a room it’s like the circus is here. She’s loud and friendly, and there’s not a dislikeable bone in her body. She gets along with everybody.”

In addition to the power-hitting lefty, Stith was also intrigued by a power-throwing southpaw whose intensity in the circle was matched by her demure personality off the diamond.

“Taylor was shy when she was younger,” Stith added. “But what attracted me to Taylor was how hard she worked. It’s been well documented she’s blind in her left eye, but she never talked about that. She worked herself harder than everybody else because of it.”

As it played out, both McQuillin and Palomino joined the OC Batbusters 14U team, marking the first time the pair sported the same jersey.

The long, demanding grind of the travel ball schedule mixed with a spring break spent at each other’s houses was the perfect recipe for the duo get past that initial impression.

“I got used to her, I guess,” McQuillin quipped.

Minus a brief hiatus two years ago, when Stith and Haning formed their own teams for the Premier Girls Fastpitch Nationals, McQuillin and Palomino have remained on the same team.

“I’m just happy I didn’t have to face her again,” Palomino said. “I went 0-for-7 off her at Nationals two years ago.”

FROM CLUB TO HIGH SCHOOL

McQuillin’s thought process mirrored that of her travel ball teammate. She was happy when Palomino’s family moved to south county prior to their freshman year and the two became teammates at Mission Viejo.

By the time they stepped onto Mission Viejo’s campus, Palomino had already committed to the University of Arizona – where her aunt and current Diablos co-head coach, Toni Mascarenas, attended. McQuillin, however, was set on Oklahoma State.

Their high school success was immediate. Having gone 15-13 the year before the arrival of Palomino and McQuillin, the Diablos caught everyone’s attention with a 24-6 record in 2012.

“It’s a special group,” Mission Viejo coach Troy Ybarra said of that freshman class, who are now seniors. “All four girls (Palomino, McQuillin, Bailey Roberson and Kayleen Shafer) started right away. Taylor pitched every inning of every game that year… Commitment is the key word with them. They’ve been good for four years because they’re committed to working, and they play with a passion day in and day out.”

Oklahoma State, which is in Stillwater, Okla., remained the desired destination for McQuillin until her sophomore season. Her father, Ron, was placed in the hospital for weeks before with a heart condition he stills deals with to this day.

The situation was a glimpse into a future McQuillin didn’t want any part of.

If she pitched collegiately, McQuillin wanted to make sure her dad and other family members would be able to attend regularly. Because of the distance, frequent trips to Oklahoma State to take in games wouldn’t be possible for the McQuillin family, and Taylor’s trips home to see her dad would also be limited.

“The personal choice wasn’t hard at all because my family comes first,” she explained. “The overall situation was hard because I was still pretty young. There was already a bond there between the (Oklahoma State) coaches, so calling when you’re 15 or 16 years old and saying, ‘Hey, I’m not going to school here,’ – it’s not easy. ”

In addition to her family, Palomino, Mascarenas and Ybarra were the only others who knew McQuillin’s de-commitment was on the horizon.

Knowing Arizona had expressed previous interest, Palomino put her recruiting hat on.

“I told her every single day to go to Arizona,” she said. “Me and Toni.”

Suddenly surrounded by a future Wildcat and a former one, it became the logical program for McQuillin to look into, providing both a storied pedigree along with a reasonable proximity to her family.

THE NEWEST WILDCAT

McQuillin estimates there was a five-minute gap between the hardest phone call she had ever made and the one that put her in touch with longtime Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea.

The wheels were put in motion rather quickly, and before long, McQuillin took a visit to Tucson, scoped out the facilities and met with the coaching staff. Having formed an immediate bond with the coaches and with a much more practical location, McQuillin found a new home at Arizona, committing to join the Wildcats’ 2015 class during her sophomore year.

“It seems like it’s been forever since we’ve had them both committed,” Candrea said. “It was kind of a bonus that worked out for us that they both went to the same school. We’re ecstatic. They’re both great talents that we feel very good about and think they can come in and compete right away. We got a pair of jerseys here waiting for them.”

Historically speaking, the Wildcats scored what could be the best high school tandem in CIF-SS history. Palomino owns the county single-season mark for homers in a season (18), and she recently broke the all-time state home run record (53), and currently sits at 56.

In the circle, McQuillin has tallied 99 wins over her four years at Mission, just one shy of the CIF-SS mark (set by Brittany Weil, Pacifica, 2002-05). With up to five playoff games still to be played, not only could McQuillin top that mark, but she could also set a CIF-SS record for most pitching wins in a row. The record stands at 32; McQuillin has won 31 in a row dating to last season.

“I’d relate it to back in the day when Toni Mascarenas and Amanda Freed were at Pacifica High,” explained Stith, trying to put into perspective just how rare it is to have two players of this caliber playing on the same high school team. “You don’t get players and athletes like this at the same high school at the same time.

“It’s not like travel ball where you have teams built with superstars. If you’re lucky, you have three or four really good kids, maybe a transfer, and a couple kids on their way up.”

The Mascarenas connection is obvious, but when McQuillin was awarded the Gatorade National Player of the Year award last June, it was Freed – the awards’ first recipient in 1998 – who presented the power-pitching junior with the coveted hardware.

FIVE TO GO

A day after Mission Viejo’s Senior Day honored McQuillin, Palomino, Bailey Roberson and Kayleen Shafer, the duo walked toward the school’s diamond. The numbers of the four seniors, spray painted onto the outfield grass, remained legible.

Now more than ever can the girls relate to the whole ‘high school flies by’ notion. Both remember celebrating Senior Day as freshmen, and they’ve come to appreciate the process and the hard work it has taken to get them to this point.

The current goal is to go 5-0 in the playoffs, cap their high school careers with back-to-back CIF championship victories and have a 31-0 record as seniors.

Not to be overlooked, though, is McQuillin and Palomino’s desire to go out on top with this group of girls. They’ll never suit up with Roberson again. Shafer will be a Pac-12 rival in a matter of months. And the team’s underclassmen are all committed to colleges across the country.

“For us seniors, some of us have been playing together since we were 10, so it’s not just these last four years that are coming to an end,” Palomino said.

McQuillin added, “When we reflect on things, it’s, ‘We used to play each other in rec ball all the time,’ or ‘We used to be on the same travel ball teams.’ Realizing this is our last time together, we want to go out strong. Not only for us, but for our team, our school and our community.”

The tools are all there. Now it’s just a matter of finishing the task at hand.

Contact the writer: kconnolly@ocregister.com


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