When Dean Diffin passed from pancreatic cancer on Nov. 12, 2017, it was hard to know if softball would ever be the same for the Diffin family.
After all, it was Diffin who introduced his three girls — Sophia, Gracie and Maggie — to the sport, teaching them to play on a pitcher’s mound in the family’s back yard.
He was their first and favorite coach, but his absence in the dugout stung for many more than just his girls.
Diffin was a beloved teacher and coach at Centennial High. His battle with pancreatic cancer affected an entire school from the students he taught in his global perspectives class to the football and softball players he mentored.
“If people had moved and gone on and weren’t remembering him in this way, I think there would be such a greater sadness,” said Leslie Diffin, Dean’s wife of 23 years. “But the fact that people are honoring him and loved him the way that we did just makes it a little bit easier, not much, but a little bit easier.”
The Centennial community paid tribute to Diffin’s legacy on Thursday with the second annual Dean Diffin memorial softball game at Centennial’s Diffin Field. Wearing uniforms that read “Diffin’s Warriors” on the front, the Patriots defeated Skyview 12-8.
Fourteen-year-old freshman Gracie earned the complete game win in the circle as older sister Sophia, 17, started at catcher. Nine-year-old Maggie was introduced as the game’s honorary captain and got to wear the same uniform as her older sisters.
“It’s a healing process, and I think that I need this and I think they really need this,” said Centennial softball coach Scott McFarland, who coached alongside the elder Diffin for years. “What’s cool is they know that their dad is still watching them. They believe that and they feel that.”
For those in attendance Thursday, there were two plays in particular that delivered goosebumps.
Gracie hit a three-run home run over the left-field fence in the third inning, and Sophia followed with a grand slam in the bottom of the fourth.
“Both girls got a home run. I mean, that just doesn’t happen,” Leslie said. “I have four sisters, and two of them were here tonight. They both leaned around and said, ‘Dean’s here.’ I get emotional, but that’s what I thought, too.”
It was the third home run of Gracie’s varsity career, but her first at Diffin Field. It was only the second of the season for Sophia, a junior.
“On the other side of the dugout, there’s a banner right there (with a photo) of him, and that’s where I stand when I coach,” McFarland said. “It’s a special banner for all of us, but I put it right there so that he’s watching us right on that field. I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but he was just that big of an influence on us.”
Everything about softball reminds the Diffin girls of their dad, which can make it easier — or harder — depending on the day. Both girls chose walkup songs that were among their dad’s favorites from the ‘80s. Gracie picked Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and Sophia went with Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
“I remember dad saying, ‘If you do a rap song, you are not playing,’ ” Sophia joked. “So he will never have to hear it.”
With a three-year age difference, the 2019 varsity season is the first time Sophia and Gracie have been on the same softball team. They’ll have one more year to play together in 2020.
“When we get in a dispute, it’s different than other disputes, because Gracie and I can just pretty much say whatever we want and we’ll always get over it,” Sophia said. “It’s easy, and it really works well when we’re pitching and catching because I can say stuff to her I would never say to anyone else and it doesn’t matter. She gets on me the same way.”
Grieving the loss of their dad and playing softball in his honor side by side has brought Gracie and Sophia closer. There are times when Maggie feels left out.
“Maggie, she’s probably my more emotional one,” Leslie said. “Dean taught (the older girls) how to pitch. Dean taught them how to hit and do all those things. Maggie will say, ‘It’s not fair.’
“But then the girls, and this is why I love them so much, they will say things like, ‘Well, dad taught us so that we could teach you.’ ”