If the name of the game is sportsmanship and confidence, Austin Hopkins may as well play professionally. It’s not often one of the Yankees warmly greets a Red Sox player, but Hopkins doesn’t care to live that way. For this Special Olympics Davidson County softball athlete, the opponent is rivalry itself.
At his first Special Olympics NC Summer Games, Hopkins’ spot in the dugout would face that of his friend, Cameron Alfaro of Catawba County. Following a frustrating loss against Alfaro in the first day of competition, Hopkins maintained his positive agenda. That agenda was winning.
Sporting number one on his back, he does not take his position of shortstop lightly.
“I love playing softball and I still help out some at my old high school,” Hopkins said. “We went to the state tournament my freshman year and lost by one point.”
On the field, he is always in position. Aligned between second and third base, there’s no command left unheard, no pitch left uncalculated and no player left discouraged, even if they are his opponent. If Alfaro is rounding the bases, Hopkins has a celebratory high five waiting.
His coach refers to this vigilant shortstop as Derek Jeter, a nickname he earns honestly the moment his cleats hit the dirt. Coach Poindexter knows Hopkins’ talent better than most, especially from his days coaching him as a high schooler.
“He’s a lot more fun to be around than he used to be,” Poindexter joked. “He’s pretty good. He’s quick.”
Unofficially, Hopkins controls the flow of the outfield, ensuring that his players are paying attention to the ever-ensuing softballs coming their way. When he’s not monitoring the front lines, he proudly takes his own moments to shine.
“My favorite part of this weekend was my catch in the first game,” he said. “I jumped up and I caught it. That was an ESPN catch.”
In spite of Friday’s loss, Hopkins and his teammates remained optimistic for the rest of the weekend, focused on the upcoming competition.
On the topic of doubt, Hopkins’ namesake, Derek Jeter, said, “I love it when people doubt me. It makes me work harder to prove them wrong.”
And that is just what Hopkins did. Their last game of the weekend concluded with a 9-0 win from Davidson County, complete with a home run from Hopkins himself.
Off the field, he would consider his weekend at the 2019 Special Olympics NC Summer Games to be a home run, as well. At the Opening Ceremony, he channeled that same Jeter spirit in asking his teammate to be his girlfriend after many years of friendship.
“I loved this weekend,” said Hopkins. “I can’t wait to come back next year.”
Already training for next year’s competition, Hopkins knows exactly where he will be after home plate has been swept, the field has been raked and the dugouts are full.
He’ll be in position – waiting for the next command, the next fly ball and the next gloved hand to high five.