Growing up in rural Belton, the Popelka sisters were given two options by their mother: dance or softball.
Haley Popelka was about 5 years old when she pitched her first softball game. About a year later Alyssa Popelka became a slap hitter and a softball infielder. Neither harboured thoughts of buying dancing shoes.
More than a decade later, Haley and Alyssa form the backbone of the Westwood High School softball team, which opened the season Tuesday with a 6-4 victory over Cedar Park. Haley struck out 10, and Alyssa stroked a pair of hits and stole three bases.
They are teammates and best friends. They don’t consider themselves sibling rivals. Their coach says they have more similarities than differences.
“A lot of times, sisters of their age tend to butt heads and hate each,” first-year Warriors coach Lanea Meyer said Wednesday. “These two are inseparable.”
That became apparent when Haley, a senior, signed a letter of intent last week to play at Boston University next year. Alyssa, a junior, will join her in college a year later.
“I kept telling her, ‘Come to Boston with me,’ ” Haley said.
Haley said she adapted to pitching because she likes to put the game in her hands.
“I like to pitch because I get to control everything,” she said. “If you do well, the team does well. I don’t mind the pressure.”
The sisters called Belton home until they moved to Austin with their mother, Jennifer Smith, five years ago. Smith was a stickler for good grades and both girls are A-B students at Westwood.
“They are close and very good friends,” she said. “They have a lot of the same interests, but they were never forced to be together or do the same things. They have always made their own choices.”
Last year Haley attended a softball camp at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Smith encouraged her daughter to attend a second camp while in the neighborhood, and she made the 126-mile drive to Boston. She was attracted to the historical culture of the city and by Boston University’s academic opportunities. She is considering studying pre-med.
Smith is proud of her daughter’s decision to continue her education in Boston but is uneasy about seeing Haley leave home. “I’m already saving money to buy airline tickets” to see her play, she said.
Smith endured a similar situation last year. After Alyssa earned District 13-6A newcomer of the year honors as a Westwood freshman, she decided to move back to Belton the next school year to live with her dad, Drew Popelka. After playing in Belton one year, she returned to Westwood.
“I hated that to happen, but I had to let her do it,” Smith recalled. “It was hard to see the girls split up and not playing with each other.”
Alyssa said leaving Austin was a mistake.
“I missed my mom and everything here,” the junior shortstop said. “I’ll never let it happen again.”
Perhaps no one is happier about Alyssa’s return than Meyer, who coached two years at Converse Judson and one year at Veterans Memorial High in San Antonio before taking the Westwood position this season. She welcomes a player who batted .545 with 28 stolen bases for a 6A playoff qualifier in 2016.
Meyer, who takes over for longtime Warriors coach Tiffany Gates, jokes with the sisters about their decision to remain together after high school.
“Haley definitely takes care of Alyssa,” she said. “I probably ask Alyssa once a week, ‘Hey, what are you going to do next year without Haley?’ It’s no wonder that Alyssa made the commitment to follow Haley to Boston University.”
Teammates, yes, but sisters forever.