The sun had set on Sunday, but Tooele softball pitcher Lauren Frailey had just arrived at the batting cage for a few hours of practice.
All of the Buffaloes regularly use the off-hours cage on the top floor of a local office building.
As if the year-round practice schedule of one of the state’s most perennially successful teams isn’t preparation enough.
“Practice, practice and practice some more,” Frailey said. “You have to sell your soul.”
It is the way of Tooele softball.
The Buffaloes have always operated under a model of dedication, as indicated by their 2012 season motto: “Consistency wins championships.”
It’s a standard set in place initially by coach Barry Pitt and maintained by coaches Steve Snow and Mike Mendenhall, the masterminds behind Tooele’s successful youth program, the TC Thunder.
That program churned out collegiate players like Mattie Snow, Lauren Folta, Kelsey and Marissa Mendenhall, Whitney Holt and Whitnie Griffith who, in turn, collectively paved the way for Tooele’s dominance.
“They inspired a whole new group of girls, including me, to take up the sport. There’s just something about Tooele softball,” Frailey said. “It’s sort of magical, actually.”
But it’s not exactly business as usual for the Buffaloes.
After three consecutive state title game appearances, head coach Steve Snow resigned to have time to watch his daughter, Mattie, pitch at Dixie State College. Assistant coach Mike Mendenhall, whose daughters Kelsey and Marissa play at Dixie and Utah, respectively, had the same goal in mind.
With both longtime coaches out, the Buffaloes were faced with the prospect of an outside coach leading the program.
“I think we were all a little nervous. We’d grown up with those coaches,” senior Hadli Sorenson said. “We just wanted someone here who wanted to be here.”
The timing couldn’t have been better for former Canyon View coach Melanie Nelson.
A former Southern Utah University player, Nelson spent five years as an assistant at Canyon View and a year as an assistant at SUU before taking the helm of the Falcons program last season.
It was her dream job — until work required her husband to move to the Salt Lake area.
“My biggest worry was that I wouldn’t be able to coach,” Nelson said. “I couldn’t believe that the opportunity to coach this team was available.”
After all, Nelson had always admired — and feared — Tooele from afar.
But taking the helm of the heralded program came with some intimidation, eased by the addition of Griffith as an assistant coach.
“It’s just been about finding the balance where I can carry on traditions and bring in my own coaching philosophy,” Nelson said. “But this community has been amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better supporters.”
“The transition has been right on,” Sorenson said. “It’s different, but a good different. It’s like she’s just one of the girls.”
A new coach isn’t the only change the Buffaloes face this season.
After reaching two consecutive 4A state title games, the Buffaloes were placed back in Class 3A.
It’s far from a demotion. Rather, the classification is stacked with powerhouses like Bear River, Union and Canyon View. The addition of perennial 4A power Spanish Fork, which edged Tooele for the 4A state title last season, makes for a challenging road to the 3A title.
“This classification may be the most tough, the most deep in the state,” Nelson said.
But, true to form, a championship always remains the Buffaloes’ goal.
“We’re never really satisfied with anything else,” Sorenson said. “But this year, we’re also focused on coming together and accepting change.”
Former Canyon View coach Melanie Nelson and former Tooele player Whitnie Griffith took the helm of the Buffaloes softball team after the resignations of three-year coach Steve Snow and assistant Mike Mendenhall.
A decade ago, Snow and Mendenhall set Tooele’s future dominance in motion with the formation of the Tooele County Thunder youth league.
The Buffaloes have played in nine consecutive state title games, in classes 3A and 4A. Tooele and Spanish Fork, who battled for the 4A title last season, now join Bear River, Union and Canyon View in 3A, which many now deem the toughest softball classification in the state.