Buena High softball Coach Sharon Coggins wasn't feeling well and decided to leave for a break midway through her team's daily 2 1/2-hour practice session earlier this week.
So she left the players to themselves, returning later to find that business as usual was still being conducted.
But not by any Buena assistant.
Rather, the practice was being run by senior players Audra Olive and Rustie Stevens--which, in Coggins' eyes, was as it should have been, and as it has been all season for the Bulldogs.
"We sort of try to take charge and keep the other players in the practices," said Stevens, who, along with Olive, often has directed both varsity and junior varsity practices and been both teammate and teacher to the younger players.
Coggins already has several assistant coaches, so neither Stevens nor Olive holds that title officially. But both are often left in charge if Coggins can't be there or if assistants are occupied with individual players.
It was Coggins' decision to actively involve the two seniors in assisting the younger players. And, especially in the early part of the year, Stevens and Olive were often called upon to work as unofficial assistants, putting the junior varsity through practice sessions on fundamentals.
"The younger players all know they can come to us if they want to ask a question or they want to talk about something that maybe they wouldn't talk to a coach about," Olive said.
"Basically, the rest of the team looks to us. We've played on the varsity all four years, and it was just sort of natural."
Being a leader didn't always come naturally, however.
"We looked for it from them last year, too," Coggins said, "but they just weren't strong enough yet."
They have been this year.
Stevens, who directs the varsity and junior varsity infielders and hitters whenever Coggins asks, is the Bulldogs' third baseman. She is batting .306 and has a team-high .993 fielding percentage.
Olive, the Bulldogs' catcher, often assists in handling pitchers. She is batting .382 and is a close second to Stevens with a .991 fielding percentage.
In addition, the pair have been key providers of some less-apparent, intangible help.
"They're very, very good teachers," Coggins said. "They work well with the younger players, and there's a real sense of cooperation."
Stevens' and Olive's teammates have apparently learned their lessons well. The Bulldogs are 20-2-1, 11-1 in Channel League play and one game up on second-place Santa Barbara in the league standings.
There are seven Buena players who are batting better than .300, and second baseman Annette Bell is at .265. In addition, sophomore Kim Maher (9-0-1), senior Tamara Evans (11-2) and junior Kristi Bryant (1-0) have a combined earned-run average of under 0.30.
"It's nice to know that the coach has learned to trust us to get things done," Olive said. "Everybody trusts each other with this team, on and off the field, and it makes you feel like you have to be an example."
Stevens agreed. "I think it kind of helps us out," she said. "It helps us keep our head in the game, and makes us want to do better."
"They're the examples," Bell said. "If we're lagging sometimes, they kind of keep us in the games.
"Like, when we're winning, sometimes we tend to start talking to each other and not keeping our minds on the game. They'll remind us about it and help us stay concentrated."
While Stevens and Olive simply try to help varsity players keep their heads in games, they often play some friendly head games with the junior varsity team.
"The JVs, they're good players. A lot of them, all they need is confidence," Olive said.
Stevens, who has made notable progress in her career at Buena, enjoys being one of the ones to help build that confidence.
"I know I've made drastic improvement from when I first got here. At first, if I messed up a play, that was it. My head was gone," she said. "That happens sometimes with the younger players, and you try to pick them up when they make a mistake."
First, though, Stevens and Olive try to prevent mistakes from happening. And members of the JV team say they do a good job of it.
"They show us what we're doing wrong, and it pushes us to do better and reach our potential," sophomore Laura Klemm said. "It really helps us."
That, according to Stevens, is the whole idea.
"Sometimes they're afraid to ask questions, but if you ask them, 'Do you have any questions?' then they'll go ahead and ask you," she said.
"And I think sometimes it's easier for them to ask us things than it is talk to a coach. I think sometimes coaches are a lot of pressure."
For that reason, Stevens likes Coggins' system of actively involving older players in the handling of younger ones.
"It's different, but it's something that's good different," she said. "It might not work with every team, though. I think you kind of have to find the right players to do it with."
In Stevens and Olive, Coggins thinks she has.
"I was feeling a little sick out at practice, so I left for a while to take a rest--and I can do that," she said.
"I like this system; it's working for us, and it keeps the kids involved."