It wasn't long ago that McNary senior Taylor Ebbs was a standout youth softball player, awestruck by her older brother's friend, former Celtics star Hailey Decker.
The two became friends, and on the occasions Decker returned home from playing at the University of Nebraska, they would take hitting practice together at a barn.
“One time I beat her in a hitting game, and that was the best day of my life,” said Ebbs, nine years younger than Decker. “I beat a college player. Ever since then, I've always wanted to be the player she was.”
Now Ebbs, who has put up Decker-like numbers at McNary, is on the brink of a college career. Last month, Ebbs signed with Kentucky, choosing the Wildcats over Oregon and Minnesota.
Ebbs visited all three schools but said that Kentucky, an NCAA Super Regional qualifier in six of the last seven years, “checked off all the boxes.” Passing up a chance to play at Oregon, where Decker finished her college career, wasn't easy for Ebbs.
“It was big between Oregon and Kentucky,” said Ebbs, who plays shortstop at McNary but is likely to play outfield in college. “I loved Oregon. It was my dream school since I was a little girl. But there was something about Kentucky that just drew me right to it.”
The opportunity to get away from home appealed to Ebbs, who plans to study nursing.
“I wanted a new start,” she said. “Their campus and the way they support their athletes is amazing. They treated me like I was important. They treated me like they needed me rather than just wanted me.”
The left-handed hitting Ebbs burst onto the scene as a freshman by hitting .548 with 45 RBIs. She followed that with an exceptional sophomore season, batting .644 with seven home runs and 60 RBIs, leading McNary to the 6A Mountain Valley Conference title and being selected as the conference player of the year.
Her dominance at the plate is reminiscent of Decker, who had 27 home runs and150 RBIs in four seasons at McNary and was named the 6A player of the year in 2011 and 2012.
“Hailey had more power, but Taylor, she just uses the whole field,” McNary coach Kevin Wise said. “If she sees a hole, she's like, 'If I get a pitch there, that's where I'm going.'
“She can read defenses. They'll play back on her, and she's fast enough that if she sees that, she'll just slap, lay down a bunt. That gives her another added advantage.”
After losing to eventual 6A champion Sheldon in the second round of the state playoffs in 2019, Ebbs and the Celtics had high hopes for 2020, only to have the season canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“We knew it was gong to be a good season,” Ebbs said. “We were all so excited to see where we were going to go. When it got taken away, you kind of lose motivation to do things.”
The Celtics did not meet in person until September, when they practiced three times a week for a month. For Ebbs, it was an important time to show leadership.
“I feel a big responsibility,” she said. “All the awards and stuff I've gotten have been great, but I'm more worried about making an impact on the people around me. Making my teammates better, not by coaching them or anything, but by setting a good example, and making sure everybody knows that things just don't get handed to you.”
Wise called Ebbs “the ideal teammate.”
“She just encourages girls,” Wise said. “I've had girls say to me, 'When I came in, I was kind of in awe of Taylor, and kind of scared to talk to her.' Then they're like, 'She just comes up and starts talking to me, and I'm freaking out because she's talking to me, but she's super nice.'”
Ebbs came to McNary as an outfielder – she plays center field for her Northwest Bullets club team – but took the shortstop role by necessity.
“Honestly I wish I could put her there because she could cover the whole outfield,” Wise said. “But when she came in, we didn't really have a shortstop. She's just so darn athletic. She struggled a little bit her freshman year, but she came back the next year and she was like, 'I have to redeem myself.'”
Ebbs has played in about 15 games this year with the Northwest Bullets. She participated in summer scrimmages in Idaho on back-to-back weekends and played in fall tournaments in Dallas (Ore.) and Arizona. It took some time to shake off the rust.
“Once I got a game under my belt, I was fine,” said Ebbs, who hit two home runs in the games at Dallas.
She missed a tournament in Utah due to back pain that flares up when she comes to a stop from running. She said an MRI revealed minor bulged discs but she has been cleared to play.
“We still haven't really figured out the whole problem,” she said. “It still really bugs me, but it's not the pain that it was.”
Ebbs, who also plays volleyball, said she is committed to playing her senior softball season with McNary.
“I just want to play with those girls one more time because I truly don't think I'll ever be on a team with the chemistry we had,” she said. “The team chemistry will forever be there.”