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Utah softball: Freshmen have found a way to step up for Utes

Published May 26, 2017 10:06 am

Utah softball • Castenada, Barrera and Martinez each made contributions to help Utes get to Super Regional.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There was only one moment last weekend when Breonna Castenada knew she was in over her head.

It was right after Utah won three straight games to begin the NCAA Tournament, when the team did its postseason ritual of leaping into the diving pool on campus in full uniform. Castenada had to literally sink or swim.

"I thought I was going to drown with the whole uniform on," she said, laughing. "I just swam to the side and held on."

The other parts of the game have come along more easily to Castenada and some of her fellow freshmen.

The New Mexico native is batting .321, and has hit her way into the starting lineup as the designated hitter for the Utah softball team. She's one of a handful of rookies getting significant time on the diamond for the Utes (36-14), who ran through last weekend's NCAA regionals by outscoring their opponents 27-2 in three games.

While much of that has to do with the experience Utah brought back, including seven seniors, it also points to the freshmen who have risen to the challenge of contributing early — something coach Amy Hogue hoped for, but still had to cross her fingers after recruiting most of the class when they were sophomores in high school.

"There's so many more factors that come into play when you're picking kids as young as we are," she said. "Are they going to grow more? Are they going to do well enough in school? There's a lot more things to consider."

It appears that Utah has chosen its recruits wisely.

There's Alyssa Barrera, the outfielder batting .367 with only nine strikeouts. Joining her on the Pac-12 All-Freshman team was catcher Kelly Martinez, who gunned down a conference-leading 13 would-be base-stealers from behind the plate this season. Castenada scored four runs over the weekend, and had two hits against Fordham. Ryley Ball, Utah's lone player from in-state, has gotten into games as a pinch runner.

Many of the early contributions were planned: Utah needed an outfielder and a catcher after graduating talent from those positions last year. But no freshman was guaranteed a position.

"We definitely wanted to start, that was the plan," said Martinez, who came up through the same club program with Barrera. "But even if I wasn't starting, the plan was to be the best possible player I could be. If that was being bullpen catcher, I was going to be the best bullpen catcher I could."

The club softball circuit, particularly in California, has evolved to the point where many top-level players are headed to a tournament every weekend, save during the high school season when they play during the week. Hogue has a short list of coaches and programs that she trusts, and tries to draw her talent from the teams that compete at the highest levels.

While pitching is harder at the college level, several of the players who enter Utah's program as freshmen have already faced Pac-12 pitchers before in club. Intimidation is not as much of a factor; learning the mental side of the game is the big adjustment.

"A lot of those girls have never watched film before," Hogue said. "They need to learn to prepare for games, to learn how to run the basepaths and to basically mature and live on their own."

Being unprepared is rarely a problem now for high-level softball recruits. Burnout is a bigger issue. Martinez said many players she knew in California got tired of the endless circuit of games and travel. Some recruits who look like studs as sophomores are done with the game by the time they're seniors.

"It really tests if softball is what you truly love," she said. "It's not for everyone."

The hot start by Utah's freshman class will have to continue this weekend as Utah tries to advance in Super Regionals. Hogue believes that Washington, which swept Utah in the final Pac-12 series of the year, will attempt to pitch around some of Utah's more experienced players and test the freshmen.

The rookies? They say they're ready to dive in.

"What we have in common is we all hate to lose or fail in anything," Castenada said. "We just keep on pushing through."


Twitter: @kylegoon —

All-star freshmen

Some of the standout rookies on Utes softball:

Alyssa Barrera*, OF • Third-best average on the team (.367); lowest strikeout rate

Kelly Martinez*, C • Led Pac-12 with 13 runners caught stealing

Breonna Castenada, DP • Fifth-best average (.321); third-best slugging percentage (.423)

*Pac-12 all-freshman team

NCAA Super Regionals

P Utah at Washington

Friday • 9 p.m. MST, ESPNU

Saturday • 7 p.m. MST, ESPN2

Sunday (if necessary) • 8 p.m. MST, ESPNU






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