It’s a crisp January morning, with the only sounds on the northeast side of campus coming from the University Music Center in the distance and some construction nearby.
“Let’s go, Beach!” breaks the silence in this corner of campus as the players of the Long Beach State Softball team take the field Wednesday, Jan. 31, for one of its final practices at home. The team will hit the road for a 20 games beginning with the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge in Mexico on Thursday.
Last year saw the softball team finish its regular season at just under .500 and the squad ranked No. 71 in the Top 100 RPI in the whole country, while finishing fourth in the Big West Conference. The team’s 11-10 Big West Conference record marked the tenth time head coach Kim Sowder has finished over .500 in her 11 years at Long Beach State. Heading into this season, their goal is to improve not just their conference record, but their overall record.
“Our major goal is to win the Big West Championship,” Sowder said. “Ultimately we’d like to get to the College World Series, but right now, our focus is making it to the postseason and making it to the Big West championship.”
Sowder has been working with the team to improve every aspect of play during the off-season, but noted the most important area of improvement was leadership among the players. She cited the seniors as doing a “great job” of leading the team and helping the new players “mesh” with the rest of the team.
One of the players who has taken a major leadership role is senior catcher Lauren MacLeod, who recorded 10 RBIs last season.
“We really want to focus on attacking in the first inning, keeping our energy the whole time and being resilient throughout the whole game,” MacLeod said. “As a player, since I’m the main catcher, I want to do everything I can to support my team defensively, hitting wise I just want to make sure I get as many runs in as I can, RBIs are the main thing I want to focus on, [as well as] being unselfish offensively and defensively for my team.”
While the team will have two of its players, senior infielder Lauren Lombardi, and sophomore infielder Alyssa Gonzalez, redshirting this season, both players have still contributed a lot to the team during practices, providing leadership and batters improvement during practice. Redshirt freshman outfielder Taylor Tiger will receive more playing time this year with a focus on pinch hitting and pinch running until her shoulder injury is completely healed.
Sowder is ready for all of her players to break out and shine this season, but is definitely looking forward to getting more playing time from sophomore pitcher Cielo Meza.
“We’re excited to start the season with her,” Sowder said. “We didn’t have her until conference last year and she was freshman pitcher of the year. ,“We’re excited to build our pitching staff around her.”
Meza, Big West Freshman Pitcher of the Year last season, is coming into this year fully recovered from an injury that was still affecting her from her 2016 season and ready to bring her strong performance from her conference play to this spring season, citing her drive as “a perfectionist” as a big part of her preparation for this season.
“I’m really excited to keep it going and moving forward and I already feel much stronger and confident in my pitches,” Meza said. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a Big West Championship and I feel really this is the team to do it, I have a lot of confidence in that. We’ve been putting in so much work, more work than we have in the past and I think it’s going to really pay off.”
Sowder also cited senior utility Jessica Flores as another player to look out for, following her strong conference play in which she gained “her confidence,” leading the team in hits during conference play and played solid in a “closer role” in the pitching circle.
“I really see the want to succeed and I appreciate it, there’s so much respect for them coming in and I’m really happy to have them,” Meza said.
McLeod, who carries a leadership position amongst her teammates, has enjoyed seeing the new players grow close with everyone.
“They have adapted to our team and have really become a part of our family and I’m really excited to play a season with them,” MacLeod said.
Among the 10 new players on the team, Naomi Hernandez, the freshman starting outfielder out of Norco high school in Corona, will be one of the standout players this season who is really looking forward to playing with “a bunch of great players.”
“My teammates, I want to do good for them and really not let them down, so I’d say that’s what motivates me to do my best,” Hernandez said. “I’m looking forward to travelling and seeing the road and the different experiences that we’re gonna face.”
After the 20-game road series taking the team through Mexico, Las Vegas, Palm Springs and San Diego, Long Beach will return to host its first home game at 2 p.m. against Baylor College on March 6.