When the Utes went to Los Angeles in March to play UCLA, Anissa Urtez took a hard look at the stands.
She saw young girls decked in baby blue and gold, cheering on the Bruins. The scene took her back to her own childhood.
“I was one of them when I was little, cheering for UCLA,” Utah’s freshman shortstop said. “It’s just funny to see them now that I’m playing against them.”
The Utes aren’t just trying to beat UCLA — they’re attempting to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Bruins, Arizona, Washington and some of the other bluebloods in the Pac-12, one of the most competitive softball conferences.
It’s a multi-year process, and they’re still a ways from truly competing in the upper tier, but there are sure signs of progress. One of the biggest markers is the surprising production the Utes have gotten out of their youngest players, program newcomers who have stepped onto the diamond and guided the team to a winning season and eight Pac-12 wins — the most they’ve had since joining the league.
Three of the team’s top five hitters (by average) are freshmen: second baseman Hannah Flippen, first baseman Bridget Castro and Urtez. The three account for about 38 percent of the team’s hits, and about 44 percent of RBIs. Flippen is among the conference’s top five in hits, runs and triples.
Then there’s Sammy Cordova, who took Pac-12 pitcher of the week after getting two wins in the Utes’ three-game sweep over Cal, the program’s first-ever series sweep in Pac-12 play.
The rising stars of the program represent coach Amy Hogue and her staff tilling fertile recruiting grounds in California, where softball is serious business. Five of Utah’s six freshmen this year hail from the Golden State, and several of them know each other from regional softball circles.
Those players who couldn’t get to UCLA but still wanted to play in the Pac-12 found themselves nodding their heads as Hogue laid out her pitch. Come to Utah, she said, have a chance to play early and in a brand new softball stadium that is one of the league’s best.
“Coach A really encouraged me to come out here,” Flippen said of her recruiting process. “She said, ‘We’ve got these new facilities, we have good trainers, good education, a little bit of everything.’ ”
There’s plenty of experience at Utah, including junior outfielders Kate Dickman and Marissa Mendenhall, but getting playing time is a merit-based system — not experience-based. Flippen, Castro and Urtez earned starting spots in the infield out of the gate.
While Utah still finished sixth out of nine teams in Pac-12 regular season play, the Utes are no longer at the bottom of the league. And with a young corps leading the way, their hope is very soon, they’ll rise from the middle as well.
“I think we’ve learned a lot this year,” Castro said. “In every loss and every win, we’re making noise and showing how good we can be.”
Pac-12 softball standings
1. Oregon • 19-2-1
2. UCLA • 17-5
3. Arizona State • 15-5-1
4. Arizona • 13-9
5. Washington • 11-9
6. Utah • 8-15
7. Stanford • 5-17
8. Cal • 4-16
9. Oregon State • 3-17