Abbey Donovan (11), Riley Donovan (17) and Harlee Donovan (riding piggyback) display some sisterly love. –Photo by Cat Cutillo
By John Murphy
Sunday morning, before a light rain fell on the coast, three of the area’s best softball players traipsed around Martin’s Beach and their family’s sprawling ranch. They had come to pose for photos.
It was “Charlie’s Angels” meets “Petticoat Junction” as Half Moon Bay High School softball stars Abbey and Riley Donovan and their sister Harlee Donovan, now of College of San Mateo, smiled and vogued for photos at the famous beach just south of Half Moon Bay. Then they repaired to their Triple D Ranch in the mountains across the Highway 1 to help create more images. The backdrop was ancient tractors, old trucks, a clutch of barking hunting dogs and some of the greenest grass this side of Ireland.
“I feel like I’ve broken several laws being down here,” one of the visitors said to Abbey after family patriarch Sean Donovan used an access card to open the gate to Martin’s Beach.
“When you’re with us, it doesn’t matter,” said Abbey, senior second baseman for the Half Moon Bay High School softball team.
That’s no brag, just fact. Mom Shannon is part of the Deeney family that formerly owned Martin’s Beach and sold it to the Silicon Valley billionaire who tried to close the winding road down to the beach to the public. That, famously, prompted a spate of well-publicized lawsuits and much public debate.
The Donovan girls spent their early years at Martin’s Beach, living with their parents in a two-story home overlooking the surf. They were just a stone’s throw from a now-closed cafe.
Now the brood, which includes 14-year-old twin brothers Jimmy and Drake and five-month old Zoey, live in a home on what Sean Donovan calls “the compound.” The huge chunk of picturesque land comprises the Triple D Ranch. Three related families (the Donovans, Deeneys and Dexters) live there among the cows, dogs, chickens and decaying farm equipment strewn about, a nod to the 170 years the land has been in the Deeney family.
“They’ve been here for six generations,” said former Half Moon Bay High School football and baseball player Sean, a 6-foot-4 mountain of a man who graduated from high school in 1991. “There’s a tractor out here that was once pulled by a horse.”
Before building their house, Sean and Shannon had to prove ownership of the land, prompting Sean’s father-in-law, Rich Deeney, to retrieve an old deed from a shoe box ensconced in a family safe.
“It was handwritten on parchment paper with a pen in this fancy calligraphy,” Sean said. “The guy from the county said, ‘Where did you get this?’”
At that, Sean smiled, much like he does when oldest daughter Harlee, a power-plant of a catcher for the CSM softball team, sends a pitch into orbit for the Lady Bulldogs. She has hit 28 home runs in one and a half seasons for the community college and is the best known of the Donovan sisters, though the others are coming up fast.
During one game this season, an opponent gave Harlee the Barry Bonds treatment, walking her with the bases loaded rather than pitching to her.
Amateur softball does not generally elicit the kind of adoration Barry Bonds once received, but if it did this trio of Coastside sisters would be legend. These girls are also as tough as bullwhips, having grown up on the ranch racing motorcycles, riding horses, branding livestock and even riding bulls in a local rodeo.
“They’re ranch girls,” Sean said. “Sometimes I joke that Zoey (the baby) will be a cheerleader. But these are three tough girls. They do ranch work, helping drag dead cows in the winter and feeding cows, whatever they have to do to pitch in. It’s a little different out here.”
The Donovan girls all started playing softball in Half Moon Bay around age 7. They picked up the game and improved at varying rates but are now all excelling — Harlee as the star of the top-ranked community college team in the state and her sisters as key cogs on a high school team that is unbeaten.
Harlee, 19, is the oldest Donovan sister and the trailblazer in softball and otherwise.
She was named a softball All-American for CSM after hitting a state-leading 20 home runs as a freshman. Now a sophomore with a .423 batting average, eight home runs and 31 runs batted in, it’s interesting to note she was not always so competent.
“My wife (Shannon) when Harlee first started, was not embarrassed, but did not want a lot of people to see her play because she was so bad,” Sean said. “But with a lot of hard work and perseverance she’s turned that around.”
Harlee is 5-foot-8 and cut out of granite. Her physique is the result of years of ranch work, as well as weightlifting at CSM. She had surgery in November to repair a slight labrum tear and to clean up a bone spur problem that runs in the family.
“Every single day she worked with the trainers at CSM and lifted weights and did the rehab,” Sean said. “I wouldn’t have had the intestinal fortitude for it, but by January she was back.”
Opponents have pitched around her this season, but she has still excelled, including hitting a walk-off home run against San Joaquin Delta in a 3-2 victory.
“I was pretty stoked,” Harlee said. “I was having a shaky game and not doing my best. I was so in the moment (after hitting it out) that I don’t remember my reaction, but the video shows that I was pretty excited.”
Harlee enjoyed barrel racing when she was younger, but says she doesn’t have time for it now. She plans to play at a four-year school after CSM and thinks her two younger sisters are “pretty stellar” on the diamond.
Abbey, 18, is in her fourth year on varsity at Half Moon Bay High School and is hitting .375 in three games with an on-base percentage of .575. When Abbey was 7 ½ she was on a 10-and-under team with Harlee that played in a tournament in Missouri.
“She was 3 feet tall and was our starting right fielder,” Sean said. “She had this giant glove on and was catching everything hit to her. A coach for another team said, ‘Who is that girl out there?’ and I told him, ‘It’s my daughter and she’s only 7 ½.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Outgoing and social, it was Abbey who gleefully announced during Sunday’s photo session among the cows and dogs that “Riley stepped in a big turd.”
Between the lines the middle Donovan sister is versatile, having played just about every position on the diamond.
“I like to play,” the 5-foot-5 star said. “I really like to hit, and when I make a good play in the field it makes me happy.”
Riley, 16, is Half Moon Bay’s 5-11 sophomore catcher. She’s lighting it up at the plate after three games, hitting .556 with a home run and five RBIs. Her slugging percentage is .888.
Like Harlee, Riley was not a quick study in softball.
“I was awkward when I first started playing,” she said. “Around seventh or eighth grade I started to build on my skills and get better.”
Riley said she looked up to her sisters and wanted to be like them so she studied them intently. Now she’s enjoying the fruits of her labor.
“It’s such a fun sport,” she said. “I love to be in the dugout screaming. There’s so much adrenaline when I run out on the field that I just want to throw someone out or hit the ball.”
Riley played junior varsity volleyball last season at Half Moon Bay High School and also plays for coach Ryan Havice’s Breakwater club volleyball team. One night the team had a sleepover at the ranch.
“I don’t want to say the girls on the team are city kids, but they had a team-bonding party out here and there aren’t many lights and the girls were like ‘It’s so dark,’” Sean said. “We told them, ‘Yeah, but you can see the stars and hear the coyotes.’ Half Moon Bay is only 7 miles away, but, when you’re out here, you feel like you’re a world away.”
A beneficiary of all this ranch grit and sisterly excellence is Half Moon Bay High School first-year softball coach Claire Rietmann-Grout.
“The Donovan sisters are tough,” Rietmann-Grout said. “They come out here and they work hard and they know softball. They have very high softball IQs. I know we can look to them for a hit or a play when we need one.”