IRONDEQUOIT — Desarae Maldonado received an early Christmas present this year.
That’s because the Irondequoit High School senior signed to play softball with Niagara University in November. Not only will Desarae receive a full scholarship to attend Niagara, she also will get to play the sports she loves at a Division I school. She will be the first Latina student in the area to reach that level of softball play, according to her skills coach Fred Tillinghast.
In addition to playing for her high-school team, Maldonado trains weekly with Tillinghast, whose family owns and operates The Battery training facility in Gates. She also plays with the center’s travel team, Lightning Elite, which has taken her to the national softball tournament twice.
"That was awesome," Desarae, 17, said of playing in the tournament in 2007 and placing third out of 117 teams. "It was a lot of fun."
For her parents, Bernadette and José Maldonado, watching their daughter play was a thrilling and nail-biting experience.
"I gained a few gray hairs," José Maldonado joked.
It was her father who first placed a bat in Desarae’s hands when she was 8 years old.
The rest, as they say, is history. She began playing softball in a town league and quickly moved up to a travel league.
"It was more competitive than little league," she said.
Soon after, a coach introduced her to The Battery, where at age 12 she began weekly training sessions outside of team practices that continue to this day, Desarae said. That kind of commitment has helped her begin to compete at a higher level, she added.
She signed her commitment to playing at Niagara at The Battery on Nov. 11 as she sat at a small table flanked by her parents. Other family members and friends also were on hand, including Rochester Councilwoman Jackie Ortiz, who is a cousin of Desarae’s father.
Ortiz presented Desarae with a city proclamation of congratulations.
"To me, it’s a testament that when you have a support network and caring parents and others around you who care, this is what happens," Ortiz noted.
It’s also important to note that providing their daughter with all the opportunities to reach this level of play also meant sacrifices for the family, she added. Desarae has a younger sister, Miranda, who also plays softball as well as basketball.
"It was tough in all aspects," concurred Bernadette Maldonado. "It was tough economically. It was a sacrifice to get where she is now."
But driving their daughter to cities all over the northeast every weekend for the past several summers to play with her travel teams — as well as making videos to show off her softball skills — also exposed her to college-level coaches and scouts. It was during her sophomore year that she became short stop of her travel team. It’s the position she hopes to stay in at Niagara.
"I always wanted to be short stop," she said. "You’re captain of the infield and you get to move more. You have more ground to cover."
When Tillinghast began training Desarae five years ago, he said that he noticed right away her dedication to the sport. Desarae works on all aspects of softball play during her weekly sessions: fielding, running, throwing, bunting, said Tillinghast, who also is dean of students at Bishop Kearney High School.
"She’s a talented young player," he remarked. "She has a tremendous work ethic and is willing to listen and improve."
Megan Kane saw Desarae’s potential when they first started playing together four years ago.
"I never thought she could get any better, and she definitely did," said Kane, 18. "Honestly, she’s one of my best friends. She’s always there."
And while Desarae is soft-spoken and humble off the field, all bets are off when she puts on that uniform, Tillinghast said.
"When she steps on the field, a different personality comes out," he noted. "She is very aggressive and very confident."
While softball has been her focus for so long, Desarae said she also is looking forward to going to college where she plans to study psychology. She also will need to continue the balance of maintaining good grades and her team practices and games, she added.
Her parents noted that as parishioners of Holy Cross Church in Charlotte, the small, Catholic environment of Niagara University was a perfect fit for their daughter.
"It has a family-type feeling," Bernadette Maldonado said of the university.
The distance, Desarae said, also gives her the independence she seeks while not being too far from home. Given the fact that she is already blazing a trail for other Latina athletes in the area, Desarae said that she hopes to continue serving as a role model.
"I feel honored," she said of the recognition and scholarship. "I hope to (show) others that if they put their heart it in, they can do the same thing."