Hailey Ruckle isn’t afraid to admit it: School isn’t easy for her. She has a tough time reading. Big classrooms make her nervous. She doesn’t like when people judge her. It’s hard for her to talk to new people.
“But when she puts on that uniform and gear, she transforms into something completely different,” said Hailey’s mom, Tara Ruckle. “She’s loud. She’s determined. She’s a leader. She’s a badass.”
Hailey has been grappling with her mental health and dyslexia from a young age. Though she claims she’s shy, she doesn’t shy away from talking about her struggles and what she’s doing to overcome the adversity.
“Softball is 100% my outlet,” said Hailey, a standout senior catcher on the Peninsula Seahawks softball team. “You can never think too far ahead to worry.”
To use a softball analogy, Hailey spent the last 15 months taking life one pitch at a time, but that wasn’t always the case. Her mental health battles came to a tipping point during her freshman year at PHS. She wasn’t surrounding herself with the best people and put other’s concerns before her own. Hailey’s learning wasn’t going well to begin with and challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help. By the time her junior year came around in 2021, the idea of not graduating on time, or at all, was a possibility. She took the first part of that school year worrying less about what others thought and putting more effort toward prioritizing her own needs.
With guidance from Peninsula School District Success Coach Jennifer Buys over the years, Hailey decided in January 2022 to enroll at Henderson Bay High School to get a more personalized education than what she could get at PHS. Hailey and Tara give a lot of credit to Buys for not only helping to save Hailey’s education, but even her life.
“I truly believe if (Buys) wasn’t around, I wouldn’t be here,” Hailey said.
Hailey knows there’s a stigma that comes with attending an alternative high school and acknowledged that didn’t help with her nerves. The teachers and staff helped her regain a strong hold on her emotions and the smaller class sizes empowered her to take control of her learning. HBHS was the fresh start she was looking for.
“This school was a better option for her,” said HBHS Principal Brian Tovey. “Hailey started building such a strong relationship with the staff, and she quickly found her footing and became a leader.”
Her newfound success in the classroom translated to the softball field. Henderson Bay doesn’t offer a sports program, so Hailey got to play softball with the Peninsula High School Seahawks. Her team during her junior season was 22-3 overall and went undefeated as South Sound League champions. She batted .390 and was error-free as the team’s catcher. This year’s team, and Hailey, are enroute to another successful season.
“Watching her success on the field while learning the skills of life in the classroom is just what she needed,” Tara said.
Although Hailey has been on the varsity squad since her freshman season, PHS Seahawks coach Mike Paul was excited to see Hailey break out last season.
“She is extraordinarily talented,” Paul said. “I knew Hailey could play like that, but I don’t know if she knew she could. She’s had a tough go, and I think she’s at a really good spot in life.”
College, which wasn’t even a possibility two years ago, is now a reality for Hailey. Last month, with a blue and white Henderson Bay High School Bulldogs banner hanging above her, and a green and white PHS Seahawks banner below her, the senior inked a full-ride scholarship with the Columbia Basin College Hawks softball program in Pasco. Tovey believes she is the first HBHS student to play college sports.
She’s made a name for herself as a catcher, but Paul calls her “probably the best outfielder I’ve ever coached.” She’ll play centerfield with Columbia Basin. Her high school teammates, Grace and Glory Estabrook, signed with Yakima Valley College and those two teams are in the same division in the Northwest Athletic Conference. Hailey said it will be exciting to share the field with them, even if they’re in separate dugouts.
Though she sports a Seahawk jersey on the field, she felt it was only right to show her appreciation to the HBHS community by having her signing day ceremony at the school in front of family, friends and school staff.
“It was an overwhelming moment with all the love in the room — you could feel it,” Hailey said. “There’s a ton of people who’ve held my hand through it all and have supported me unconditionally.”
Tara said, “To see all the people who have connected with the light that I’ve seen in Hailey was very emotional. These are the people who have followed her through the darkest times to her lightest times.”
Paul thinks Hailey could easily play Division I softball in two years, but Hailey isn’t looking that far ahead. She’s taking it one pitch at a time. Columbia Basin will give her the courses she needs to be a firefighter and emergency medical technician. She’s been through a lot, and this is her way of helping others, she said.
For now, Hailey wants to be an advocate for mental wellness, hoping to help others.
“She’s being a voice for other teens and adolescents to not be afraid to speak up about mental health,” Tara said. “Walking through the hard (times) and speaking your truth is something even adults have trouble with, but she’s always been mature for her age.”
She still has anxiety. She is still shy around new people. She still doesn’t like people judging her. She knows that now, but that’s not stopping her.
“I never stopped. And when I wanted to stop I just kept going,” Hailey said. “I’m finally coming out of the clouds and thinking, ‘I did that, and I survived that.’ ”
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS