Editor’s Note: Above image courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- It may be Melissa Mojica’s first year leading the UMHB softball program, but she is certainly not a new face at Dee Dillon Field.
A five year assistant coach at UMHB under longtime head coach Larry Hennig, who retired this past summer, Mojica has her squad heading in a direction, as it aims to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 and enters the season ranked No. 13 in the nation by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA).
“I’m really excited, and obviously with the challenges of Covid and everything else, it’s been a pretty stressful time,” said Mojica. “The university is doing a great job with the protocol and testing, and it looks like we’re going to be able to have a season. That’s exciting becuase, even just a few motnhs ago, we didn’t even know if that was going to happen.”
In this year of unknowns, teams uncertain of the schedule, testing multiple times a week, it is a relief, as Mojica would later note, to simply have a season at all, regardless of where the Cru finish in the ASC standings.
Of course, the aspirations and expectations for this year’s team are much higher, conisdering the young talent that has returned, including two of last season’s top hitters in Lexi Harris and Milly Cesare. On top of that, the majority of last year’s newcomers are looking to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted to all spring sport athletes last April, meaning they could play for five seasons. In fact, with the NCAA extending another blanket waiver to all D3 athletes this year, a freshman who came in for the 2020 season, could still be a freshman as the 2022 season rolls around.
“A lot of our younger kids are looking to go five years,” said Mojica. “It just takes off some of the pressure on them to graduate in four years and allows them to play and stretch out their classes a little bit longer.”
Additionally, her team will be aided by two incoming transfers in Tatum Stover (Texas Woman’s University), Bailey Wagner (Harding University) along with transfers who joined the team last season, such as Jules Martinez (LeTourneau), Kenzie Bush (Murray State College) and Bailey Stoker (Schreiner).
“Getting a transfer that has three years of playing time under her belt is a tremendous help,” said Mojica. “We have a couple of those girls that are going to be here four years because of that.”
After evaluating her squad throughout the fall, Mojica was able to start putting together a lineup, taking advantage of the versatility on the team. As to who stood out? That’s a tough question, although the middle infield definitely looks solid, led by Milly Cesare and Elissa Elliott.
Said Mojica: “Milly Cesare was our starting shortstop last year as a freshman. She had a great fall and the last two weeks of practice have been incredible. Her offense is strong and she leads the team. She’s a quiet leader, but she leads our team through action.
“Also Elissa Elliott, a second baseman, was a freshman last year, but she has lots of drive, and she’s a competitor. Everything she does is 100 percent.”
When it comes to the pitching staff, Mojica has plenty of arms that she trusts, which is key, especially in division three, when teams often play two games on Saturdays and are spread thin in the circle.
“Our pitching staff has been working hard; Camryn Rucker, Jules Martinez, Bayleigh Grogan are all coming back and I expect great things from them,” said the first-year head coach.
One versatile player that has the capability to play multiple positions is Spring, Texas native Bailey Eggleston. The freshman infielder had a superb fall and although Mojica was not sure where Eggleston will be playing this spring, “she’ll play somewhere”.
“Whether it be outfield or infield, she can do it all,” said Mojica. “We going to figure out what is the best option for our team. She is definitely good enough, she’s got to be in the lineup.”
The Cru will play a 38 game slate this spring, which began on Saturday, as UMHB traveled to Georgetown, Texas, for a doubleheader at Southwestern. With no fans in the stands, due to Southwestern protocols, the Cru won 9-1 in six innings in game one, as Rucker pitched five scoreless frames. In the second game, Southwestern pulled out a 8-7 victory in a nine inning contest, though Eggleston had three hits. The contest was back and forth, with Southwestern pushing it into extra innings with two runs in the bottom half of the seventh inning before the Pirates sealed the win in the ninth.
UMHB now looks ahead to the home opener, when ASC rival UT Dallas comes to Belton for a non-conference contest on Monday at 3 p.m. CT.
The key conference series for the Cru comes March 5-6 when East Texas Baptist, ranked No. 1 by the NFCA, heads to Belton for a three game series. The season will conclude with a three game set April 30-May 1, against Concordia in Belton.