UC Davis, Brooke Yanez Making History One Pitch At A Time
Some kids fall in love with a sport the minute they begin playing. Brooke Yanez was not one of those kids.
Yanez tried playing T-ball with her twin brother, Brian, at age 5, and cut her season short by one game.
“She showed up in flip flops with a lolly-pop in her mouth, and didn’t want to play,” Yanez’s mother, Camille, recalled. “She had her jersey on and I tried to get her out there, but she said, ‘nope’ and just sat there. She absolutely hated it.”
After trying other sports and activities, Yanez ended up back on the diamond a few years later to play softball. Her enthusiasm had greatly improved, but her natural ability wasn’t immediately apparent.
“She was not coordinated at all,” her mom said. “She was always that kid that had to play the minimum innings. That is all she played and then she would be out. I was like, 'Oh man. I don't know if softball is her thing.'"
From playing minimum innings to mowing down minimum batters in perfection, softball has definitely become Yanez’s thing.
The UC Davis sophomore has developed into one of the top pitchers in the country. Yanez is 19-2 with a 0.98 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 129 innings pitched.
The left-hander is one win away from the school’s Division I single-season record, and on pace to break the program’s Division I single-season ERA record she set last year (1.75) when she earned Big West Conference Freshman Pitcher of the Year honors.
Yanez ranks No. 4 in the nation in ERA, No. 5 in wins and No. 13 in strikeouts per seven innings (9.9).
“Brooke’s competitive spirit is really what sets her apart,” said UC Davis head coach Erin Thorpe. “It doesn't matter if it's a dance competition or if she's on the ball field, she likes to compete and that is rare in athletes these days. It’s hard to find those girls that are ultra-competitive and fiery and emotional.”
Thorpe didn’t recruit Yanez to the program. The Ventura, Calif., native had committed as a freshman in high school before Thorpe was hired five years ago.
As soon as she took the job, Thorpe began scouting every recruit and Yanez was one of the first she visited.
"Right away, I knew there was great potential there. I knew immediately that if I wanted to find a way to keep her committed to UC Davis, I had three years to do it,” Thorpe said. “It was a challenge, and it's something that I am most proud of through that recruiting process. It is very hard for a mid-major program to keep high-level talent like Brooke."
Beyond softball, Yanez was originally attracted to UC Davis because of its strong veterinary school. She thought that was going to be her career path in life. Yanez has since changed her mind as a communication major, but she doesn’t regret her decision one bit.
“Coming on a visit, it felt more like home than I would have probably felt anywhere else because it was still in California and my teammates were all very welcoming and very laid back,” Yanez said. “On my official visit, they were already asking me if I wanted to move in with them off campus. It was really cool.”
Those teammates helped make a milestone moment even more special for Yanez. Last month, she threw the first perfect game in the program’s Division I history, retiring all 21 batters she faced while striking out 10 in a 4-0 victory over rival Sacramento State.
“I was kind of in shock the entire game, especially in the sixth and seventh inning,” Yanez said. “I didn’t really believe that it was actually happening. I knew everyone else knew because nobody was really talking to me.”
After recording the final out, Yanez was overcome with emotion.
"I started tearing up and my teammates started tearing up. It really felt like we all accomplished it together,” Yanez said. “We all got that perfect game and it was really exciting to see everyone else really excited about it.”
Yanez began taking pitching lessons at age 9, and knew she never wanted to leave the circle. Her older sister, Aleesa, who played catcher at Alabama State, was always available for any advice or impromptu bullpen sessions.
“I was not the best pitcher at first, but I really loved it and I wanted to get better,” Yanez said. “Having my sister around really helped because I saw how she did things and that inspired and influenced me to want to keep going in pitching. Even though she was a catcher, she rubbed off on me.”
Yanez joined the So Cal Choppers in the eighth grade and never left the travel ball program. The coaching and competition she received elevated her play to another level.
One of Yanez’s teammates on the Choppers was Cal State Fullerton sophomore pitcher Taylor Dockins. The two became close friends, and Dockins took Yanez under her wing when Yanez first moved up to the 18U level.
Dockins was diagnosed with liver cancer while the Choppers were playing in a tournament in Colorado in 2016. Yanez doubled her workload and dedicated the remaining games that summer to Dockins.
"It was an eye opener for me and the whole team. Just knowing Taylor would be grateful to be doing whatever we were doing and would kill to be playing really made an impact,” Yanez said. “I try to think every game is not handed to us and we should always work hard for what we want and be grateful we get to play.”
UC Davis and Cal State Fullerton meet in Davis on April 27-28, and Yanez and Dockins’ parents plan to share hotel rooms.
Dockins continues to undergo chemotherapy treatments while pitching for the Titans. Yanez stays in touch as much as possible, and marvels at the spirit and fight Dockins displays.
UC Davis is hosting Cancer Awareness Day on Sunday in their series finale against Cal Poly, and Yanez will have Dockins close to her heart.
“She is my inspiration,” Yanez said. “Every time I don't want to do this or do that in training, I think about how much Taylor would love to be doing it. I can, but she can't so I am going out and doing that for her.”
Yanez and the Aggies (29-7) are in the midst of a record-setting season. With 17 regular-season games still remaining, they have already broken the program record for wins in a season at the Division I level that was established just last year.
Yanez is hoping to lift the program to even greater heights before her career ends. After taking a few years to get acclimated to the sport, she now can’t imagine life without softball.
She’s motivated to keep improving, having added a new pitch to her arsenal to help UC Davis keep winning and batters guessing.
“It’s kind of super secret,” Yanez said with a laugh. “It’s the great equalizer.”