Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- One look at the ASC softball standings and something becomes clear: there is a tremendous amount of parity within the conference. Four teams; Belhaven, ETBU, Hardin-Simmons, and UMHB, sit within two games of each other, and UT-Dallas and Sul Ross State, each riding multi-game win streaks, are not far behind.
That makes the final three weekends of the regular season all the more important for head coach Melissa Mojica’s Crusaders, who are 15-6 in ASC play and ranked No. 19 by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association. UMHB battles LeTourneau in Belton in a Thursday-Friday series.
“It doesn’t matter who we play in our conference,” Mojica said.”In order to beat someone three times in a row is a huge feat.”
Which made the past weekend’s series sweep at Concordia (TX) mean that much more, as the Cru led from start to finish in all three contests in Austin, outscoring the Tornadoes 14-5.
“We set some goals in practice on Thursday that we wanted to do [in that series],” Mojica said. “And for the most part, every one of them was accomplished, from the pitchers limiting their walks to the hitters staying focused and limiting strikeouts.”
The success in the road series came on the heels of back-to-back weekends against Top 10 opponents, first facing No. 5 Belhaven in Belton before a series at No. 7 ETBU. UMHB took one game in each of those series, a step forward for the program, and a beneficial result for a seasoned ballclub. They were just the second team to beat Belhaven this year, and shut out ETBU for the program’s first victory over the Tigers since 2018. It was also the first time any of the team’s seniors had experienced a win over ETBU.
“Even in some of the losses, we were able to accomplish some things that most people don’t notice but we see,” Mojica said. “Those were big wins against Belhaven and ETBU to let our pitching staff know that they can beat great hitters.”
That confidence was felt throughout the team, as starting shortstop Milly Cesare said Wednesday. In her final collegiate season, Cesare is one of a number of upperclassmen on this roster who are aiming to make this year’s season the best yet.
“I think both of those series showed us the potential we have,” Cesare told True To The Cru. “We have what it takes and it’s only going up from here. I’m so blessed to be part of it because it’s so exciting.”
Small, yet steady pitching rotation has been exceptional
Mojica has kept a consistent group of pitchers in the circle for the Cru, using a total of five arms, four of whom have pitched over 20 innings so far this season. Bayleigh Grogan has struck out a team-high 52 batters with a 2.75 ERA, and Rachel Williams has immediately made an impact in her first season with the program, posting an 11-2 record, including a complete-game shutout of ETBU. Grason Long has made five appearances out of the bullpen in addition to three starts, and Emilee Wade, from nearby Waco, Texas, has broken into the rotation as a true freshman.
“As we get further along in the season, the hitters are getting more at-bats and more film and can study the pitchers a lot more,” Mojica said. So it’s more challenging for pitchers towards the end of the season than it is for hitters in my opinion. We’re trying to mix things up with our pitching staff all the time.”
In addition to the challenge for pitchers Mojica mentioned, there is also a fatigue that comes with pitching as often as this pitching staff has as the season progresses. But rather than fatigue, improvement has been one of the main takeaways when watching the pitchers’ weekly performances.
“One thing Bayleigh Grogan has done the last couple of weeks, she has been very consistent hitting her spots and is doing a great job,” Mojica said of her regular game one starter. “And Rachel had a great weekend. Her goal was to limit walks and balls thrown, and she did that. She came in and focused more on going right at batters and staying in the zone.”
Crofut has established herself as one of the Cru’s top power hitters
One of the more unexpected storylines of the season has been the impact of Julia Crofut, a power hitting infielder who leads the team with four home runs. A transfer from Texas Lutheran, Crofut was not even part of the team when classes began last fall, but has quickly gained a spot in the starting lineup due to the power in her bat, and team-first mentality.
“We’re really happy to see her progress,” Mojica said of Crofut. “She had a slow start in the fall, but she didn’t join our team until two days after school started. She’s a kid we didn’t recruit. She just came up and said, ‘Hey, I’m looking for somewhere to play.’
“The fall was kind of like a tryout for her. She’s worked herself into the lineup and she’s brought some life into the team. Not only is she our power hitter, but if you look in the dugout, she’s the loudest person [supporting her teammates].”
Looking ahead: UMHB can only focus on its schedule, will wait to see how the rest of the ASC plays out
The season is officially in the homestretch. Just three weeks remain, and UMHB is in prime position, two games behind first-place Belhaven with series against Sul Ross State and last-place Howard Payne on tap following this weekend’s duels with LeTourneau.
“We still have Sul Ross, who has been winning a bunch of games,” Mojica said. “LeTourneau beat Belhaven this past weekend in one game. So we’re still having to stay focused. I guess you could say we match up a little bit better because we have more depth against some of the teams. We have an opportunity to win three games if we stay focused and play good softball. That’s a good feeling.
“It’s going to be an interesting finish to see how everything settles down. All we can do right now is go out and win as many games as we can and wait to see what happens.”