Now the truth is out. On one of the Plays of the Year in the crucial middle stage of the Game of the Year, the senior star in center secretly panicked inside as she made the clutch play, only to be relieved moments later when her worst fears had vanished instead of coming true.

So now we now that Claudia Salinas did NOT badly re-injure the hand that has held her fate for two seasons. At least not badly enough to put her through the tortures of the damned once again. When Nikki Garza of North hit a single that bounced up and banged Salinas on the hand of hands, she showed what guts are all about, pouncing after the ball and eventually throwing the Lady Coog infielder out at second in the fourth inning of an eventual 3-2 EHS win.

The sequence was enormous, the win clinched a tie for the District 31-5A title, and though Salinas had to sit out the seeding game the next morning against Harlingen South, the news was good, very good. She’s not hurt that bad, they whispered, thankfully. Salinas was ready to work by Monday as the Lady Bobcats began preparation for the start of Friday’s bi-district playoff series with Weslaco.

Seem a big melodramatic? Well, we’re talking about one of the most animated characters in town, a live wire who has had by her own admission a rollercoaster ride in terms of attitude through the years. Her near-miss injury against North was not just a memory lane caper, it was potential disaster for the lineup. Because as a senior she and her long-time classmates have finally fulfilled the promise they began with way back when, leading the program to its first league title with an amazing three-loss season (three!) so far.

The whole thing, from the coaching change to the gradual turnaround to the madcap parent scene and the 23 wins in ‘10, it’s all been “insane,” as Claudia would say, and does often, as it’s a favorite expression of hers.

Hey, if you’d been down this long and excruciating road and finally emerged on the other side of a dark thicket into the brilliant light of success, you’d be freaking out, too.

ONE OF A KIND

To start with, everyone knows Claudia, whose superfast mouth runs almost as swiftly as her athletic legs. She has always been brash, no-nonsense, and good for a salty quote or two. Always up in the dugout, leading the banter, she has been one of the most interesting girls in any program; and now, as a 12th-grader, she is producing with line-drive swats at the plate and her usual solid D in center. As the Lady Bobcats rounded into high championship gear late in the season, she and the other seniors were on the job, doing the leadership dance they’d argued about from the very start, as freshmen.

But it almost was not to be for No. 13.

She broke her hand in the summer heading into junior year, and it marked the beginning of a series of tribulations that tested her resolve, in the extreme. A free swinger and great base-runner her first two years with EHS, Salinas was clearly tentative when she came back from the time on the shelf.

“It was really bad,” she began Monday night, after the first of four workouts leading to the Pantherette series. “I had a plate in my hand all season and I could never use my right hand much, it hurt so much. There was a time there when I told my mom that I didn’t think I could do it anymore. I thought my softball career was over, right there!”

All of a sudden, the hard work in the dirt and the attitude adjustment she had been attempting to master, all of it seemed far away.

“Honestly, I was thinking of forgetting about the whole thing,” she admitted. “I mean, the girls were like, ‘Claudia, we need you,” and I heard that, but I was in a lot of pain, it was tough, man.”

Her junior year was a washout really, as she migrated downward in the batting order and disappeared as a force on the squad. While a talented group of freshmen took the Lady ‘Cats to within an eyelash of their first playoff appearance in four years, Salinas was a sideshow for the first time, and it was not easy to take. A couple of campaigns ago, she’s had some lofty ideals.

“As it was, my best friend when I started here was Cici de la Fuente, you remember her? Great catcher, loved her,” she said. “Well, she left after her senior year and she had been our team leader, and she told me that it was time for me to take over. There were a few of us who wanted to assume the leadership role at the time, and we went at it pretty good…until we decided that we had to work with each other. I’m not gonna lie, there was some fighting between us over this, and luckily it has all worked out.”

THE TOUGHEST HURDLE SURPASSED

And that is the EHS story in a nutshell. The program has had the skills to compete with and/or overtake perennial power North for a few years, but one could argue that the girls’ inability to come together has been one of the reasons they have not done so, until this year. Salinas and the other high-profile vets, Mariah Ozuna and Sarina Rios, have come of age, meshing as a group and learning what it takes to be leaders. Besides performance, which all three have provided with vigor in 2010, the little things pertaining to emotions and graciousness have begun to shine through.

Salinas notes that when she started as a freshman, former Coach Eloy Perez sat her down and with the help of Salinas’ father, read her the riot act.

“I guess I was pretty cocky, but anyways, they told me, “If you don’t get your act together, you will go downhill from here,’” she recalled. “I would complain about not getting my picture in the paper, things like that and Eloy, one of the best coaches I have ever had, made me see that I had to change and mature if I was going to fulfill my potential.

“He asked, ‘Do you want to be good, better, or the best? It’s up to you.’”

When Perez left for Lyford and hard-nosed Jesse Banda - the former Pan American University infielder on the team’s 1971 College World Series entry - took over, the early predictions for the match of strong personalities were not sanguine. Though they have had their battles from time to time, Salinas readily admits that the stern taskmaster has helped her navigate the maturation process.

“I have learned to deal with him and vice versa,” she commented in plainspeak, totally honest about things, a trait that has been a help and a hindrance along the way.

“He’s something else…Banda will always be that nagging voice in your ear, making you do the right things and I can say that I do actually like him. He will always play his reverse psychology game with me, and you know, I think it works!”

Vintage Claudia, straight talk from a ballsy kid who bitched relentlessly when she was told at age 14 that she had to quit playing baseball with the boys and chart a softball course.

“I was always aggressive, I was raised that way,” she reported. Salinas has a brother and sister who were both varsity catchers before she hit the scene.

It was all out in front of her in 2009, with a fine EHS team set to challenge North for city supremacy and beyond. But then came the summer injury, and a season she would like to forget.

She may be an All-District candidate now, and a prospect who’s earned a tryout with Ranger Junior College after the season, but last year, none of that seemed possible. Not with the consistent pain in her right hand.

“It was all messed up last year, I couldn’t grip the bat, it was insane,” she recollected, the hurt and frustration rising to the surface once again. “I just wasn’t the same player.”

Luckily, the pain subsided as the latest season progressed and soon Salinas was back in the thick of the fight, getting big hits and nailing down center field, flanked by Leeanne Hinojosa in right and Kassy Rodriguez in left to comprise one of the most complete outfields in the Valley.

“I’ve been more selective this year, and I have been able to hit well all year,” she opined. “Honestly, this has come out of nowhere, because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get it back again.”

Now she is the barometer of the team’s attitude, leading the cheers, keeping her cool, and performing like she did early in her EHS career. Salinas has been able to assume her share of the mentoring role for the younger kids, and she has steered clear of the self-centered moments that have intermittently marred the program’s progress. An anecdote illustrates how far she’s come.

“Earlier this season I had a great game and looked in the paper the next day and there was a picture of someone else,” she laughed. “I didn’t care at all, really. The coaches always told us, ‘Who are you playing for, the papers or the team?’ Well, someone asked me about it, and I told them that the other girl had a great game too, so why not put her picture in there?”

The journey continues Friday for the Lady Bobcats. They are a prohibitive favorite against Weslaco, but if Salinas has learned anything in four years (and she has) it’s not to take anything for granted.

“It’s insane, we are so good right now, better than any of us imagined we could be,” she gushed. “But we cannot slack off now, we want to have a good week of workouts, we need to get our hitting and defense in, and stay focused. It’s been a lot of pressure-slash-headaches from time to time, especially for me with this damn hand. But we have finally come together, and we are ready to jump on Weslaco and go for their throats, right off the bat!”

Count on Salinas to tell it like it is, in colorful terms; she has been like that since she first stepped on the field and remains, despite all the up and downs, a complex young person who is always thinking, talking, and once again - after all the down times - producing softball magic every time she and her teammates hits the diamond.