A shift in team culture led to the Utah Utes softball team to its best season in years

The Utes host Southern Illinois on Friday in the Salt Lake City Regionals.

Utah Utes softball coach Amy Hogue wanted to stop connecting sentences with “but” and start doing so with “and.” In her mind, that would allow her self-talk to be inherently more positive.

So about a year and a half ago, she got an ampersand tattooed on her right wrist to remind herself that she can be multiple things at once. And as it turned out, her players had the same “bad habit,” so the tattoo serves as a reminder for them as well.

“I’m an aggressive hitter, but I’m also kind of humble,” Hogue said in an example. “No, and you’re humble. You’re a bada-- and you’re a kind person. They feel like they had to be one or the other. I’m like, no, you can be both.”

Hogue’s tattoo is just one of several culture shifts the Utes have implemented that led them to recently winning their first-ever Pac-12 championship and first NCAA Tournament berth since 2017. Utah hosts Southern Illinois on Friday at 1:30 p.m. at Dumke Family Softball Stadium.

The Utes missed the tournament last season by a margin no thicker than a softball stitch. When the team didn’t receive an at-large bid, the chip on each player’s shoulder grew overnight. Returners talked about how to make the incoming freshmen feel part of the family from Day 1 and how they could make sure 2023′s Utes indistinguishable from the 2022 Utes.

One way they did that, senior Hayley Denning said, was doing away with team captains.

“Everyone leads in such a different style and way,” Denning said. “One person can be super loud, another person can be quiet and lead by example. There’s so many different ways that we lead on this team that mesh so perfectly.”

It’s only Karlie Davison’s first season with the Utes. But even she can see how special the team’s culture is.

“This team is full of a lot of grinders,” Davison said. “People on this team want everyone to succeed, and I think that’s unique to this program.”

Davison also has appreciated the upperclassmen’s intentional inclusion of the younger women on the team.

“Obviously the upperclassmen on this team have more experience,” Davison said. “But they’ve really allowed the freshmen and the younger kids to use our voice and just push each other, hold each other accountable, which is unique, I think.”

Utah is led by pitchers Mariah Lopez and Sydney Sandez, who have ERAs of 2.33 and 2.73, respectively. Davison said when Lopes is on her A-game, the Utes are tough to beat.

“When she’s on and we’re behind her on the field, we just know we have to win the game for her,” Davison said. “I think her success plays a huge role in her success as a team.”

On the hitting side, the Utes have eight hitters who bat at least .300, led by Aliya Belarde (.393), Julia Jimenez (.371) and Sophie Jacquez (.367).

The Utes beat No. 2 UCLA last week to claim the Pac-12 title. Jacquez and Jimenez left that game with injuries. They took batting practice Thursday, but did not participate in the more active parts of the session.

So the Utes may once again need their bench players to step up like they did against the Bruins. The strength-in-numbers culture has Hogue believing it can happen again. She said the 2023 team is probably the deepest she’s ever had.

“I don’t think we have a superstar,” Hogue said. “I think we have a whole team that likes to play together and wins will together.”