Along the west coast of the United States, there’s a range of large, clay-colored cliffs that sit face-to-face with the waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Deep into the distance, the blistering sun makes its way towards the horizon as seagulls fly along the water.
The picturesque, 68-acre Sunset Cliffs Natural Park in San Diego, California, plays host to thousands of tourists each year.
While many of the visitors simply sit on the cliffs to enjoy the breathtaking view, the locals have a bit more of an adventure in mind when they choose to visit.
Yes, you read that right.
Several San Diego natives trek to an area dubbed the “Arch” to hurl themselves off the 20-foot cliff into churning salt water that’s sprinkled with hidden rock groupings.
Even though many come out of their daring jump unharmed, there is still, of course, a large potential risk involved.
On any given summer day, you could find Delanie Gourley at the cliffs.
But not jumping.
“I was too scared to jump off,” Gourley said. “All my friends would jump, and I would stand there and watch.”
If she wasn’t observing her friends as they made the bold leap while she was growing up, maybe she’d be enjoying Mission Beach with her family, another favorite location to enjoy the water. The beach is on a sandbar that borders both the ocean and the San Diego Bay, a simple 30-minute drive from her Lakeside, California, residence.
But there’s one thing Gourley guarantees she’d be doing at home, no questions asked.
She’d be buying a California burrito, a San Diego staple.
The burrito consists of carne asada, cheese, salsa fresca, sour cream and french fries, the most important ingredient.
“Every time I go home, I get one. It’s so good,” Gourley said. “I go with my family, my friends. I’ll go by myself. I love California burritos. I’ll stop at In-n-Out maybe once, when I come home, maybe. But every other day it’s a California burrito with red sauce.”
Through and through, Delanie Gourley exhibits the California-girl lifestyle. She lives for the beach and her good share of Mexican food.
But she also couldn’t go without softball.
Or her family that helped her adjust to playing the sport she loves on the other side of the country, pushing her to the dominant role she has retained during her time at UF.
• • •
While Sunset Cliffs is a typical display of the west-coast scenery locals enjoy, it’s not where Gourley grew up. She lived her entire life in Lakeside, California, the east county of the city.
Lakeside, with a population of somewhere around 20,000, gives off a much more rural atmosphere when compared to the constant bustle of San Diego County. It’s home to one of the best rodeos in southern California, giving off an air of small town charm that’s enriched with old-time tradition.
Each year, the county also throws a Western Day parade. And every year, Delanie has marched in it, from donning a Dallas Cowboys cheerleading costume in elementary school, to her El Capitan High School softball uniforms in her teen years. It was a tradition.
“Being from Lakeside,” Gourley said, “the rodeo was a big part, and the Western Day parade.”
She was put into softball at the age of four, with a little push from her father and mother, who played softball as she was growing up.
“She was right… they stuck a glove in my hand and I just kind of rolled with it,” Gourley said.
Her mother ended up being her catcher as she grew up, taking pitch after carefully-crafted pitch.
“Me and my mom are super close,” Gourley said, “We are like best friends.”
But it was her older brother, Dalton, who was her largest supporter as she thrived in the sport. He played baseball growing up, but didn’t have the skill-set to go onto the collegiate level the way Gourley did. Nevertheless, he was always her biggest cheerleader.
“I think there can be two ways with a sibling,” Gourley said. “They can either be resentful and they want to be the college athlete, but he was never in doubt supporting me. There were times where I wouldn’t even want the spotlight because I didn’t want to take it away from him, so his support has made a really big impact.”
• • •
For Gourley, softball was always fun. When she was little, it was the snacks and a cute helmet that drew her in. As she entered high school at El Capitan, her teammates and coaches made it fun. The team's head coach, Joe Cota, would bring popsicles to practice. Workouts would end early so the group, filled with girls that played together since a young age, could go out to dinner at Eastbound.
It was so much fun, she became motivated to reach the sport's next level. Gourley had dreamed of playing softball at UCLA – it was an amazing program and fairly close to home. But instead, Florida’s college town atmosphere drew her in. Besides her official visit, she had never traveled to the southeast; not many people from the west coast do.
Could softball still be fun, so far away from home?
At first, Gourley was ready to get away and head to the SEC for a softball career. But then, after a few months at Florida, homesickness kicked in.
“It was hard,” Gourley said. “Initially I was like I was high on leaving…small town, never coming back…and then about three months later I was like, I kind of miss it – little East County, I just missed it.”
Despite that distance, California never really seemed that far away.
For starters, she had her friends from home to speak with on the phone.
“We are always there for each other when something happens in our lives; I know I can always go to (Delanie) about it,” her good friend, Jenna Porter, said in a Facebook message. “She is always supportive of me…and I do the same for her. She’s just a great friend.”
And then there was Dalton.
“Since day one when I got here, he would call me randomly and be like ‘how’s it going, how are workouts, how is season, how’s life there?’” Gourley said.
There was Aubree Munro, who Gourley played with throughout high school travel ball. She was a dear friend and familiar face for Gourley when the then-freshman stepped on campus for the first time in 2014.
Besides Munro, there were numerous California girls who bonded with Gourley at times when going home for a day or two wasn’t an option.
This season alone, there are six California natives: Amanda Lorenz, Sophia Reynoso, Justine McLean, Janell Wheaton, Nicole DeWitt and Gourley.
“I think the best thing about it is that we are all each other’s family away from home,” Lorenz said, a Moorpark, California, native. “Knowing when I get homesick or anything, they know exactly what I’m going through. Having that support is very helpful.”
• • •
In Gainesville, there’s no Sunset Cliffs, no Lakeside Rodeo, no Western Day parade. There’s no popsicles at practice, not to mention the absence of California Burritos. But there’s a small-town charm and tradition in Gainesville just like there is in Lakeside. That continuity from home made the transition to playing in Florida much easier. And now, Gourley has filled this place with memories.
She’s helped the Gators keep a 61-10 record when she’s been on the mound since her freshman year, and phenomenal pitching efforts in both 2014 and 2015 postseason play propelled Florida to back-to-back national championships.
This season alone, she boasts an ERA of 0.77, the fourth-lowest in the country.
In short, Gourley’s commanding pitching has continued a UF softball winning tradition.
“I love to just see her happiness on the field and when she’s in the game,” Porter said. “I can genuinely feel it, even though I’m not there.”
Her consistent play over the past four years has earned her a spot on the USA women’s national team, as well as a nomination to the final list of the Senior CLASS Awards, given to the best senior student-athlete among 10 different NCAA sports.
“I’m just happy that I’ve impacted the program as a player and a person to where I can leave a mark on myself as a teammate, talent or not,” Gourley said.
But then there’s the memories made off the field. Her junior year, she and her teammates dog-piled onto the field of Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium when they learned they were SEC champions. It was a team that became her family away from home.
And to Gourley, they truly are family.
Instead of her mother taking her pitches, it became Munro and Wheaton.
And in her final year as a Gator, Gourley believes the bond they have is rare.
“It’s natural and it doesn’t come easy…you can feel it,” Gourley said.
Her teammates brought that family love, and they kept softball fun. Gainesville brought with it a small-town vibe and southern tradition, both crucial components she was used to growing up.
But before she heads home to the beach and burritos, she has one more goal in mind.
“Now that it’s my last year,” Gourley said, “I want to win (the national championship) again – why not one more?”
Contact Cassie Amundson at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @camundson_.