Utah Utes softball coach Amy Hogue walked to the pitching mound in a signal that Mariah Lopez’s outing was over.
It was just about a month ago at a home game, although Hogue can’t pinpoint who the Utes were playing. But she does remember the moment her star junior pitcher showed her something different. Something that pointed to a higher level of self-confidence. Something so stark she had to tell pitching coach Paige Parker about it.
“She was mad that I wasn’t willing to leave her out there to figure it out,” Hogue said. “To me, that was a whole new space for her to be in.”
Lopez has been pitching lights out throughout the postseason for Utah. She’s gone all seven innings in four of the last five games, all of them wins. In those give games, she has 25 strikeouts. In the last three games, she’s given up only two runs.
The Utes host San Diego State this weekend in the Super Regional in a best-of-three series, and they could need more stellar pitching from Lopez against an Aztecs team that has won six in a row.
The arm talent has been there since Lopez’s days at Cienega High School in Vail, Ariz., where she won back-to-back state championships. But the confidence she shows nowadays has been a work in progress that has only recently started to reach new heights.
“Even playing these past couple of years, it’s been a challenge trying to switch that mindset that you’re just as good as everyone else in the country,” Lopez said.
Lopez recalled a series with Washington last season the Utes ended up winning. The Huskies have one of the better softball programs in the country, and yet Lopez was still able to lead her team to victory from the mound.
Her performance that series was impactful for her from a confidence standpoint, she said, because it was one of the first Pac-12 series during which she felt truly integral to winning.
“I think that there’s always kind of been that wavering confidence in myself,” Lopez said. “But that kind of turned the page for me, I think.”
Before every game, Lopez talks to herself, repeats reminders of how good Utah is and how much the team needs her to perform at a high level. It’s an extension of a visualization exercise Eric Tatham, the former Cienega High softball coach, used to have his players do before every home game.
Tatham said he’d ask his players to sit in a circle with their legs out in front of them. He’d place a softball at their feet in the middle of the circle. He’d then ask them to lay down in what he called a “domino effect” and close their eyes. From there, he’d walk around the circle and describe different softball scenarios.
“That definitely carried with me to this day,” Lopez said of the practice. “I think that visualizing what you want to do in that game is super important.”
Teammates remember Lopez arriving to the Utes and being shy. Senior Hayley Denning described a younger Lopez as “timid” and “tiptoe.”
But as she’s grown in confidence, the Utes around Lopez have marveled at how she carries herself nowadays. Graduate Ellessa Bonstrom played with Lopez on the Suncats club team in Arizona when they were younger, and said seeing her mature has been extra special from her perspective.
And when it comes to Lopez’s game on the field, Utah has benefitted from her continued maturity.
“She’s so competitive that no matter how she’s doing, she wants to stay in the game to prove that she can beat whatever batter she faces,” Denning said. “She never wants to give the ball up. She wants to just keep grinding through everything, just get to the next batter, get the next out. I think that’s why she’s excelled so much this year.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.