CSUN softball team looks to make noise

Illustration

Zasha Hayes

Illustration

Edward Segal, Sports Editor

A young team containing 11 new players and a coach in just her third year, CSUN softball knows they have a lot to prove heading into the 2023 season. The Matadors finished their last two seasons below .500, but with 22 of their 27 players being in their first or second year, the team has a clean slate and chance to return to winning ways.

“We have wanted to really build it from the ground up, and so we spent a lot of time on our team culture, and our team dynamic and standards, and really feel like we have done a great job of setting that groundwork,” CSUN head coach Charlotte Morgan said. “We want to have a successful program and our pedigree here is huge.”

“We have been very lucky to have some great players and families come in, and start that building,” she continued. “We feel good from inside-out, and now it’s just starting to get that other piece of the high level on the field, and that comes with a lot of sacrifice.”

Through their four fall games, the Matadors have had some promising results. They scored in five different innings in their 11-0 win over CSU Dominguez Hills, and rallied from down 5-0 against CSU Fresno, though they ultimately fell 6-5.

In the doubleheader against CSU San Marcos, the Matadors showed that they still have a lot to work on when it comes to consistency on offense. They scored only two runs on a triple in the first game, but recovered to dominate the second game as they got four runs across the plate in the second inning during a 6-3 romp.

The 27-player roster is full of first- and second-year players. Only three members of the team have spent at least two years with the Matadors.

One of those players, third-year outfielder Maiya Alemania, missed last season due to a partial tear in her ulnar collateral ligament. She came back this fall and hit a crucial two-RBI triple in the game against Cal State San Marcos. Before her injury she had played in seven games, hitting .200 through seven at-bats.

Alemania said that realizing that it’s impossible to be perfect allowed her to take pressure off herself and play free.

“It felt so good to be back and hit the two-RBI triple,” Alemania said. “I honestly was most excited to be able to dress in uniform and be able to be on the field with my teammates. Coming back to the dugout, to them, was a great feeling and moment for me. I feel like my hard work to get back really paid off, and I’m super excited for what’s to come.”

Last season the Matadors finished with a 24-30 record, an improvement from their 6-20 record in Morgan’s first year at the helm. With so many new players joining the team this year, a question arose about the young team’s identity.

To help the younger players adapt faster to the college softball lifestyle, Morgan has veterans pair up with freshmen to be what the staff calls “accountability partners.” The players in each pairing keep each other accountable both within softball and outside the game, while building camaraderie within the young group.

“We’re human. By human nature, we’re not going to be perfect, and nobody’s perfect,” Morgan said. “But if you have an accountability partner, if you have someone that you can rely on and kind of be there, I think that right there is going to help them hopefully mature and make some smarter choices and decisions a little bit faster.”

Alemania was paired with Bella Mejia, an outfielder who was part of the Great Oak High School softball team that won the Southwestern League title in 2019. Mejia said that thinking about her accountability partner is part of her plan to keep her head in the game when she’s on the field.

“The best strategy I have used is being where my feet are at, and having the knowledge that my teammates got my back,” Mejia said. “I know that they will pick me up, especially Maiya because she is always looking out for me as my accountability partner.”

“I have to be present where I am, with the people I’m with, to fully commit to the game,” she continued. “That is something coach Morgan preaches a lot. It helps that she instills that into our mindsets.”

The success of the Matadors largely depends on the freshmen this season, as they represent almost half the group. They will have to adjust to college ball quickly, and find the balance between softball and their personal lives for the team to have a chance to continue its upward trend.

On the mound, the Matadors lost Kenedee Jamerson, who started 32 games for them and had the lowest ERA on the team at 2.58. Jamerson will, however, return as a graduate manager for the team. The Matadors also have three pitchers returning from last season, as well as three freshmen stepping on the mound. Sophomore Alexis Martinez, who started 21 games last year, and Allie Gardiner, who played in relief for 28 games, will be relied on heavily.

“I think that Allie Gardiner, fifth-year senior who comes with a lot of maturity and experience, and Alexis Martinez, a sophomore, and then Kayla Dominguez, who’s a redshirt junior, I think they’ve been able to help,” Morgan said. “We have three freshman pitchers … [who have] done a great job of jumping in and realizing the standard here, and I think we have good leadership within the pitchers.”

With an average of 1.40 walks allowed per seven innings, Martinez discovered that precision was her strong suit in 2022. She pitched three shutouts in her freshman year, while earning two freshman of the week awards for her play.

Gardiner led the team in wins with nine, while tying for first in the Big West Conference in saves with three on the season.

The biggest struggle for the Matadors last season was their offense. Of the 10 teams in the Big West, CSUN was eighth in hits and ninth in slugging percentage. The Matadors were also sixth in runs and fifth in all three extra-base hit categories.

“We’re in the second year with some of these hitters, and the philosophy of understanding this level we’re playing at is a high level, it’s an adjustment,” Morgan said. “We’ve made our adjustments from the coaching side to help prepare our hitters for this level, and understand that defense does win championships. And good pitching, but we do have to have good offense too.”

Two of the top three sluggers who hit for an average of .200 or above last season are still on the team, giving the Matadors a foundation to build on offensively. But they will need many newcomers to step in and fill the gaps left by those no longer on the roster, such as Jaymi Steward, who had the highest batting average for the Matadors last season at .306.

“We have been doing a good job and worked on having a plan before we come up to the plate, knowing what to look for and sticking with that plan,” Alemania said. “What has also helped increase our production is situational hitting and execution, and being able to move runners over. Being smart and aggressive base runners has helped us produce as well.”

It has been seven years since they last made the NCAA tournament, and 18 years since they won a game in the competition. As a team that has made the Women’s College World Series twice before, the Matadors have high hopes for this season.

“My main goals for this season are to be a positive impact for my team on the field, and taking advantage of every opportunity I get,” Alemania said. “As a team our main goals for this season are to create noise, stay in the moment, play one game at a time and be at the top of our conference.”