‘Be like Pete’: Oaks Christian softball carries on in memory of Coach Ackermann
They still line up their gloves in a neat row along the third-base line before practice, still assemble in rows to give earnest handshakes and fist-bumps to every coach after practice.
They still sprint out of the dugout before games and wave to fans after games.
Still. Still. Still.
Four months after he died, the Westlake Village Oaks Christian High softball team honors every Pete Ackermann custom, still speaking in the present tense of their late coach like a beloved grandfather. The shock is gone. But the void of the mentor standing behind the third-base line still lingers.
A sign hangs in center field that reads “Peter Ackermann Field.” A poster is on the batting cage with the Ackermann quote, “Culture Before Championships.” The team wears shirts with the words, “#PlayForPete.”
Yet this is more than dedicating a season, or playing for someone they’ve lost. Grief has no timetable, and each Lions practice is an exercise in mourning, taking comfort in those traditions after a loss.
“It just feels like some piece is like, gone,” senior first baseman Anahi Arreola said. “I feel like sometimes I can feel him, but I can’t hear him.”
It’s put a tremendous responsibility on first-year head coach Cheyenne Coyle, an All-American shortstop at Arizona State and most recently assistant athletic director at Oaks Christian’s middle school. Ackermann left impossible shoes to fill as the program’s founder, and Coyle has tread lightly, working with players who told athletic director Brad Cook they didn’t want much to change after the loss of Ackermann.
Coyle’s admirably adopted a big-sister role, Arreola said. Nurturing. And through 10 games, Oaks Christian is 9-0-1, a team that’s stuck together through tragedy and therapy welcoming a new leader into the fold.
“As we continued to grow and learn how she is as a coach, it felt like home again,” Arreola said of Coyle.
As traditions have helped them move forward, memories have helped absorb the loss. Spend a few minutes with the team, and you’ll come away with golden nuggets of Ackermann stories. Senior Justine Lambert was laughing while recounting her favorite: meeting a random boy in a Chick-Fil-A on a freshman-year trip to Utah, getting rejected asking for his Snapchat, and Ackermann stopping the team van to run across the street and convince the kid to come back and ask Lambert for her Snapchat.
Coyle, in her own way, has been trying to “be like Pete” to show the players she cares about them as people, she said. Lambert, a Howard University commit, said she struggled with academics at times and Ackermann would text her to check in about her grades; Coyle texted her recently that she was proud of her after a rough week, a gesture that resonated with Lambert.
After going 34-1 in Ackermann’s final season, the Lions might be more loaded this year. Arreola is one of the top hitters in the area, with eight homers in 27 at-bats. And they’re deeper on the mound, with sophomore Paityn Lavin pairing with junior Emelia Davis to give Oaks Christian a formidable one-two punch.
The missing presence is still there and will be all year. So will be the gloves along the third-base line, and the handshakes after practice, and the waving after games. Still trying to make “Ack” proud.
Prystajko growing into all-around force
Huntington Beach’s Zoe Prystajko was one of the best pitchers in the Southern Section last season, the Stanford commit posting a 0.46 ERA.
The cerebral senior has grown her game in a different way this year — after hitting .271 last season with three homers, she’s up to a .632 average and five homers through eight games. A shortened swing with less movement is propelling Prystajko to a tremendous start as one of the best two-way players in Orange County.
“Last year, she had this stigma where she was a one-dimensional type of player. … I think that drives her,” coach Jeff Forsberg said.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.