Jillian Albayati has “dagger-ish” eyes.
That’s the term coach Mike Barrera likes to use. Glance at a picture of the Anaheim High senior on the mound; you’ll see the whites around her corneas practically popping out of her skull as she goes into her windup.
The daggers are always there, every start. Parents watch in awe as a girl blows mid-70-mph fastballs by stunned boys. Opposing teams shout a little louder than normal, Barrera said, to try to get in Albayati’s head. It never works.
“I’m just there,” Albayati said, “an athlete trying to compete.”
The mounting pressure, the growing attention that’s come with being the first girl to start a CIF baseball championship game doesn’t faze Albayati.
But there was a time, two months ago, when the focus faded. When she toes the rubber now, Albayati holds a special necklace in her back pocket. It’s a symbol of loss. Of memory.
As she heals, as life and the season have moved forward, she’s kept it close.
“I’m more in tune with the game,” she said.
After Albayati threw nine innings of one-run ball in a history-making Division 6 championship start, little Vittoria Gonzalez trotted over to Albayati as the Colonists were packing up.
Vittoria, who is in elementary school, handed the older girl a note, written by her family. Albayati has kept it in her room since.
“It said their daughter [Vittoria] was playing baseball, and I was a pretty big inspiration,” Albayati said. “That meant a lot to me.”
In leading Anaheim to the CIF regional playoffs, Albayati’s story has started to spread.
“I don’t think she even knows how much she’s inspired already,” Barrera said.
The sudden recognition — Albayati was invited by the Angels to their game Thursday — is flattering. She pays no mind to the root reason. She shrugs off questions about being a girl in amale-dominated sport.
“I don’t really think about it too much,” she said with a small smile.
Since she was 3, baseball is all she’s known. On early Saturday mornings, her father, Shawn, would pour himself a cup of coffee and head out to the backyard to start his day, only to find his daughter already honing her swing. Softball, until recently, was never given much thought.
“She didn’t know any different,” Shawn Albayati said. “It wasn’t like she always had to battle, ‘Oh, I’m the girl.’ ”
Of course, if not battles, there were small clashes. Her mother, Sylvia, remembers a trip to Georgia for travel ball when Albayati was 7, taking the mound to the snickers of nearby dads. Then the little girl started striking out their sons.
They came over to her mother. Where are you two from? How long has she been playing?
Albayati made varsity at Anaheim High as a freshman.
“I was pretty confident in myself that I’d be able to hang,” Albayati said.
Three years later, Albayati stood as Anaheim’s ace, bulldozing her way to an undefeated win-loss record in the regular season. Graduation dawned. The playoffs beckoned. The future, albeit uncertain, was bright.
Until her phone rang, two months ago. That's when Albayati learned that her friend, Cidney Franco Maldonado, had died.
“I was really in shock,” she said.
Maldonado was one of the funniest people Albayati had met.
Albayati remembers the day of a class field trip, Maldonado drinking a bottle of kombucha that didn’t agree with her stomach, burp-singing One Direction lyrics.
“She always knew how to make everybody laugh,” Albayati said, grinning at the memory.
Albayati took a few days off. She organized a food drive with Anaheim restaurant Jav’s BBQ for Maldonado’s family. She’s visited Maldonado’s grave at the cemetery often with friends. But the pain has stuck.
She knew when they walked across the stage at graduation, clad in triumphant blue caps and gowns, that her friend wouldn’t be there.
“’Mom, I don’t know what to do,’” Albayati told Sylvia.
On March 11, Albayati threw an inning in a 5-3 win over Westminster — her first game since the call. Normally, she’s in her “own zone” when she’s on the mound, her mother said. But she couldn’t get her friend off her mind that day.
Maldonado would come to watch her play, Albayati said, and always wished her luck before games.
“It was really hard to go on, just knowing that she wasn’t there,” Albayati said.
Maldonado loved Red Bulls. Albayati couldn’t pinpoint how many she drank over the course of a week.
“She was always full of energy,” Albayati said, “so, I’m sure, a lot.”
A day after Albayati learned the news, she went with friends to a rosary held for Maldonado. They brought cans of Red Bulls, cracking them open and taking swigs in Maldonado’s honor. With inspiration from friends, Albayati kept the tab from her can and strung it onto a silver necklace.
“It’s more of a grounding thing,” Albayati said.
Albayati’s known many of her Anaheim teammates since she was young, playing with them in Protect Our Nation’s Youth baseball leagues. After centerfielder Isaac Hernandez’s sister died in a car crash at the beginning of the season, Albayati was there, alongside the entire team, at the funeral.
Hernandez and the team had her back, too, through her loss.
“We all tried to give her space … when she came back, I feel like she came back stronger,” Hernandez said. “She wanted to finish the season for her friend, obviously.”
Wearing jewelry typically isn’t allowed during high school baseball games, so Albayati tucked the necklace into the right, back pocket of her pants. She’s kept it there ever since on gamedays. Quickly, she felt, it became her good-luck charm.
“It’s just a great feeling to know that she’s always there with me, supporting me,” Albayati said.
The necklace was there during the CIF championship, an outing Albayati said was one of the best games of her career. It’ll be there, too, wherever she goes to college, currently in search of a chance to either play baseball or softball at the next level.
Albayati knows, she said, that Maldonado is there.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.