San Diego State University softball has ventured into a part of the season previously unseen on the campus of SDSU.
The 2023 softball team reached the NCAA Super Regionals for the first time in program history by virtue of winning the NCAA UCLA regional last weekend in Los Angeles. Coach Stacy Nuveman-Deniz, in only her second year at the helm of the Aztecs, has taken this squad to not only a Mountain West tournament championship this season but to the final 16.
The Aztecs will take on former Mountain West foe and current PAC-12 team Utah for the right to go to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series. The super regional is a best two out of three series starting on Friday.
SDSU had another tremendous season going 38-15 overall and 16-6 in the Mountain West Conference, earning second place overall in the MWC. The Aztecs hosted the MWC conference tournament and wasted no time asserting their dominance going 4-0 en route to the conference championship. SDSU was assigned the no. 3 seed in the UCLA bracket last weekend and again asserted their dominance by going 3-0 with wins over Grand Canyon and two wins over Liberty University to qualify for the Super Regionals.
The team has been led statistically by first baseman Mac Barbara who led the team with 13 home runs and 45 RBIs. Jillian Celis also contributed with 48 RBIs. The team had an outstanding team batting average of .309, with Bella Espinoza leading the way with a .389 average. Transfer catcher Cali Decker (Florida) hit .382 for the campaign while Celis and Barbara also had averages well over .300 averages.
In the circle, the Aztecs are led by transfer pitchers Sarah Lehman (DePaul) and Allie Light (Arkansas). Light led the way with 14 wins, and Lehman had 11 wins over the season. Pitchers DeeDee Hernandez, Dani Martinez, and Cassidy West also contributed valuable innings to help the Aztecs keep opponents to a .233 batting average and keep the team ERA at a stellar 2.61 on the season.
The Aztecs will face a tough Utah team that placed third in the Pac-12 and had an overall record of 40-13. The Utes are led by a strong pitching staff that will challenge the Aztec hitters. The staff is comprised of Mariah Lopez, Sydney Sandez, and Sarah Ladd had an outstanding season, holding teams to a .233 batting average. The Ute offense is paced by Aliya Bellarde, who batted .400, and Sophie Jacquez, who batted .381. The Utes have six other hitters who all batted over .300, so the Aztec pitching staff will have its work cut out for it to keep the Utes in check.
The Aztecs held one final practice on Tuesday morning before heading to Salt Lake City.
The media assembled to speak to Coach Nuveman-Deniz and some of the players to ask a few questions. Catcher Cali Decker was asked what drew her to San Diego State and how it felt to not only play for a winning program but also head to a Super Regional. “This is amazing. The coaching staff is so great, and we are so excited,” Decker stated to EVT. When asked what drew her to SDSU, she said, “The coaching staff and the weather. This staff isn’t building a team, it’s building a program, and not only are we excited about this team, but we are excited about what’s coming next.” Decker was asked how she adapted as a new catcher to a completely new staff to her. She said it was building personal relationships. “Going to coffee shops, meeting with the pitchers off the field…things like that.” When asked how she adapts to different personalities, she mentioned that “I try to stay the same emotionally, but I’ll adapt a little to a pitcher that wants me to be more vocal or a pitcher that wants a more calming influence.”
Coach Nuveman-Deniz stepped up to the microphones, and one of the first questions asked was, “How did you mold five pitchers onto a staff?” Nuveman-Deniz responded that they go game by game, team by team. “We use metrics and analyze the strengths of the opposing team. We then try to match our staff to get the matchups we want.” Nuveman-Deniz was also asked how she goes into maintaining each pitcher’s focus and making sure they understand their role. “They discuss what each pitcher’s role will be the night before or the morning of each game. Sometimes you’ll be a starter, sometimes a reliever, and other times we need you to get three outs,” the SDSU coach said.
The coach was then asked about last weekend’s regional at UCLA. When asked how she had to change the game plan when facing Liberty on Championship Sunday instead of the expected matchup against UCLA, “Every game, we were singularly focused on the opponent. I didn’t want to hear anything about UCLA or anyone else. We needed to beat Grand Canyon; then we needed to beat Liberty. And we’ll worry about UCLA when that happens. When asked how it felt to win a regional against a former teammate and to win the regional at Easton stadium, where Nuveman-Deniz was an All-American and one of the greatest hitters in collegiate history, she stated, “It was a dream come true. I tried not to let it affect me, I’m not that superstitious, and I needed to stay in the moment. But when the final out was caught, the emotions just took over,” Nuveman-Deniz explained.
The best of three Super Regional begins Friday at 7 pm Pacific time from Salt Lake City.
The game will be televised on ESPNU.
Michael Gross has been coaching and writing about softball for over 15 years. He is currently the Head Coach at Southwestern College in San Diego and the Israeli U18/19 National Team Head Coach. Coach Gross was the Head Coach at Olympian High School for 7 years where he won 2 CIF titles. He is also a professional Public Address Announcer working for San Diego State University, Point Loma Nazarene, UC San Diego, CIF San Diego Section and several local high schools as well as announcing for CIF. He has his BA from the University of Phoenix and his MS in Exercise Science from Concordia -Irvine
Coach Gross is a native San Diegan and lives in Chula Vista with his wife Lisa, his 3 daughters and their 2 dogs.