As the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of high school spring sports, local seniors were faced with an abrupt ending to their high school careers. A group of these students were also athletes at the Texas Rangers MLB Youth Academy at Mercy Street Sports Complex, Presented by Toyota. This Rangers Academy Senior Spotlight series seeks to highlight those athletes who have worked on their craft at the Academy as they move into the next chapter in their lives.
Irving High School
The softball team of RBI All-Stars representing the Texas Rangers Youth Academy at Mercy Street Sports Complex, Presented by Toyota, entered the 2019 RBI Southwest Regionals in Austin as underdogs, without a win at the tournament in program history.
But they walked away from that July weekend having secured more than just their first win. The squad went 2-1 in tournament play, advancing to the championship contest against the reigning RBI World Series champion Houston Astros.
Melanie Henderson was behind the plate for the Rangers Academy squad.
“We each put in our time and we each put in 110 percent effort and it all paid off. No matter if we won or not, I was still proud of everybody because we all came together and worked as a team. We worked hard and we kicked butt,” Henderson said.
Texas Rangers Youth Academy director Juan Leonel Garciga, who also coached the team, decided to bat Henderson in the leadoff spot.
“Melanie was completely locked in last season,” Garciga said. “We opted to hit her leadoff, despite her extra-base power, so that we could get her as many at-bats as possible. And without checking the numbers, I feel confident that she led the team in total bases. I have never coached a player who can hit the ball as hard as Melanie, and who I genuinely was uncomfortable throwing BP to.”
Despite dropping the championship contest to the Astros, who went on to win the softball division of the RBI World Series for the second straight year, Henderson pointed to the tournament as the highlight of her time at the Academy. She credited the effort and teamwork leading up to the event for making that experience possible.
“All the practices -- from doing infield and outfield for an hour and half, making sure we know where we’re going and we know all the plays, making sure we can hit the opposite way -- Coach Juan really put us through practice. He made sure we did that hard work and it really paid off,” Henderson said.
Since she started participating in Academy programming when the facility opened in 2017, Henderson has represented the Rangers Academy in the RBI Southwest Regionals in ‘18 and ‘19; the Jennie Finch Classic as part of All-Star weekend festivities in ‘18 and ‘19; and various showcase events sponsored by MLB.
Garciga has watched Henderson develop into a more complete player over those years, coaching her in the Jennie Finch Classic and RBI Regional tournaments.
“As a coach, you sometimes are hardest on your most talented players because you want to make sure you help them achieve their full potential. There were definitely times I pushed Melanie,” Garciga said. “She pushed herself to get better behind the plate and focusing on sharpening the mental aspects of the position. She grew into a vocal leader on the field and developed into almost a second coach on the field, at times calling her own games. She brings a tremendous amount of passion to the game.”
Henderson’s Irving High School graduation was held at Globe Life Field on May 31. It was a ceremonious end to a senior year cut unceremoniously short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The celebration was the first time Henderson had seen her classmates since March 12, which was also her birthday.
“Seeing all my friends, I was so excited. But we were all like, ‘I can’t believe that was our last day of school’,” Henderson said.
Instead of her senior season of high school playing out on the field, Henderson and her fellow Irving seniors were visited at their homes by the coaching staff, who delivered customized yard signs and jewelry charms.
“I went a long time without seeing anyone except my coaches,” Henderson said. “They were like, ‘I know this is not how you wanted this to go, but we’re all here for you.’”
COVID-19 threatened to do more damage to Henderson’s softball future than cutting her senior season short.
The catcher had planned to attend Alcorn University, but needed to boost her ACT scores. Once the ACT tests were canceled due to the pandemic, Alcorn removed the requirement and it appeared the path was cleared.
And then senior college athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility.
“They don’t have money left because they’re going to get the seniors back. They didn’t have money left for me at all,” Henderson said. “They were still really interested. I was really excited, we were going to try, but it was still a lot of money. So we kept looking and looking and looking.”
A call from Lamar State assistant coach Brittany Baker set a new plan in motion.
Between Henderson’s graduation ceremony and her mom’s return to work, the very next day was their only chance to visit. The coach made it happen, and Henderson and her mom squeezed in a trip to Port Arthur, Texas.
“As soon as I walked the campus, it felt like home, it felt like I was going to fit in,” Henderson recalled.
Now Henderson is continuing to practice as much as possible as she prepares to live out her dream.
“I’ve always wanted to be at this level of softball since I was a little girl. I’ve always wanted to play college. I’ve always seen myself playing college. And then I finally got to that place, and I’m relieved that I did all that hard work,” Henderson said.
Henderson heads into that next chapter with a perspective shaped by the unique year experienced by the class of 2020.
“The most important thing I’ve learned from playing softball is playing the game like it’s your last game, because you never know when your last game is,” Henderson said.