One of the reasons a good college softball team commits so hard in practice is so players build faith in their skills and in each other – why leave something undone when you can work your way to a solution?
But successful programs still need to catch a few breaks along the way, or at least not be subject to relentlessly bad news. For Long Beach State, the 2017 campaign was a mash-up of injuries, an extremely difficult schedule, and the realization that no matter how you grind, some years just never get off the ground.
The 49ers did see some reasons for optimism in late May and are fully engaged in making 2018 a memorable response, a season that begins Thursday at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.
Long Beach State did finish 23-28-1 last year – it was beyond unusual to see the team below .500 – but the 49ers were 11-10 in the Big West Conference. And from a personnel standpoint, they got some wind in the sails as pitcher Cielo Meza returned to the circle after a nearly year-long recovery from a severe rotator cuff injury.
As a freshman in 2016, Meza was already making an impact, and in March she was throwing a terrific game against 14th-ranked UCLA when her shoulder gave way. She was able to avoid surgery, but intense physical therapy and even platelet injections were the price to pay – she was given a medical redshirt and got into the circle again in late spring 2017.
The old magic returned – she had a 1.26 ERA in 66-plus innings and was named the Big West freshman pitcher of the year. The first few steps of 2018 may involve some workload monitoring, but Meza looks more than capable of leading Long Beach State’s revival.
“Last year, I was out for most of preconference and still recovering. Once I hit conference, I felt I was getting back into it,” said Meza, who had an outrageous 576 strikeouts in 266 innings of high-school pitching as a junior and senior. “I spent the summer playing for Mexico’s national team and felt really good, really comfortable. I did even better in the fall season and am feeling healthy – I’m excited to play a full season and be fully back for Long Beach.
“It was a rotator cuff tear, something that’s not very common in softball pitchers. I was freaking out, but I had an awesome staff and trainers and therapists who supported me. It was just one time there in my freshman year; I don’t think I stretched enough, and was not taking care of it as much as I should have. It was very emotional, and it hurt pretty bad.”
“We are super excited to have (Meza) back healthy. She put in a lot of work, and had patience to rebuild her shoulder the right way, as it had broken down,” said 49ers coach Kim Sowder, who has guided her program to six NCAA Regional appearances in 11 seasons. “She’s a hard worker, and sometimes you have to hold her back. We are pleased with her comeback – we started with a pitch count and were cautious.
“We wanted to be smart, and we’ll do the same thing this year. She will be our leader in the circle, and we will just have to go game-by-game and see how she feels each weekend. She’s not on a pitch count, she looks strong – we have four pitchers on the roster, and we will use them all in the beginning. We want (Meza) for the whole year.”
Jessica Flores, a senior, will be there to help with some of the pitching load – she’ll also play centerfield, where she excelled in her two-year JUCO stint at Arizona Western as well as last year for the 49ers. Flores, who hit .350 in Big West play last season, is a key part of the offense as LBSU (which was picked to finish second in the preseason Big West poll) sets the table for 2018.
“Last year, with the injuries – we always play a tough schedule, and last year was by far the toughest schedule we’ve ever played … six of the eight World Series teams, 12 who were in Super Regionals,” Sowder said. “We can compete in that type of schedule, but we needed everyone healthy to compete the way we wanted to. We struggled to gain confidence, but I was proud of the fight in the team, how they stuck together and controlled what they could.”
Other players to watch include senior catcher Lauren MacLeod, who caught every inning of league play last year and has begun to show a knack for the clutch hit – she also had a .352 OBP last season. Nichole Fry started 50 games at shortstop as a sophomore and hit .270 with 15 extra-base hits, and looks like a breakout candidate this season. Two more seniors, LT Torres and Julia Lombardi, will also be leaned on by Sowder.
The trip to Puerto Vallarta is also getting hearts pumping for Long Beach State; the team goes to Hawaii for Big West games every other year, so this year a trip south was the best fit.
“It’s an awesome opportunity, and I have a lot of family going,” Meza said. “Mexico as a country is a big fan of softball; there will be a lot of fans out there. We can see it at practice, how the intensity has picked up … we want to restore our name. It’s been four years since our last Big West championship, and this team will do it.”
“We have nine seniors, so we thought it would be nice to do something a bit different, and we’ve heard so many great things about this tournament,” Sowder added. “I want to see this team go out and compete, focus on mindset and play with great energy – we want to find out where we are at. I have no real expectations. We do have 10 new players, so we have different options and looks, but for now we’re just excited to compete against somebody not ourselves.”