When the Temple College Lady Leopards walked off the field at the Canyons Complex in St. George, Utah, last May, they had accomplished a feat that had yet to be done in the program’s history — win a softball national title.
That may have been the easy part.
The hard part begins today when Temple begins its defense of the title at the NJCAA Division I national tournament.
“I don’t think a lot of people knew a lot about Temple, at least the softball aspect of it until last year,” said coach Kristen Zaleski, whose sixth-seeded squad faces Chattanooga State at 8:30 tonight in St. George. “We’ve had good years. We just weren’t known. Now people know.”
As the defending champions, the Lady Leopards (46-9) know they have a target on their backs in their return to Utah.
“Definitely a lot of people want to beat us, just for the fact we won last year,” said sophomore Lenzi Stewart, who was a member of Academy’s 2017 Class 3A state championship team. “But we like that. We like having that pressure on us. We are excited for it.”
Just getting back to the tournament was a feat in itself after losing some key pieces of last year’s squad.
Stewart, Kennedy Jimenez — also from Academy — Madilyn Weatherly and Daisy Gonzales are the returning members of last year’s national title team.
“At first, we were a little distant because no one knew each other except us four,” Weatherly said. “But in the fall season, we played some bigger teams and we meshed. It all clicked and in the spring we just kept going. We got more relaxed and we got closer.”
The Lady Leopards went from not knowing each other to meshing, clicking and then dominating.
They enter the tournament with a 14-game winning streak and much better offensive numbers than they put up last year.
They are batting .388, compared to .354 in 2018. They also have 10 more home runs (44 to 34), 111 more runs (486 to 375) and 57 more stolen bases (153 to 96).
What they lost from last year’s team when it comes to offensive production, they’ve more than made up for.
“I think we all bring something different to the team,” said sophomore Tiler Noyola, who transferred from Missouri-Kansas City. “Everything we bring contributes one big thing and that’s what makes us great. That makes us hard to beat.”
Noyola leads the team with 12 triples and her .460 batting average is second to freshman Alyssa Escamilla’s .475. Those two also are the leading base stealers, with Escamilla’s 35 just ahead of Noyola’s 34, and Escamilla’s 78 runs are tops by just three over Noyola’s 75.
“I’m confident (everyone) can produce in any situation. That’s what makes us tough,” Zaleski said. “Almost anyone can steal, almost anyone can hit, almost anyone can bunt. There’s so many tools throughout the lineup. That’s tough to say year to year.”
Weatherly leads the team with 14 home runs and 79 RBIs. Freshman Savanna Parker has a team-high 21 doubles and is second in home runs (10) and RBIs (60).
“It’s been a challenge coming to a team like this,” Parker said. “It’s pushed me to my limits. When one girl is having a bad game, someone is right behind her to pick her up. That makes us really effective.”
TC’s pitching staff is all new, and the numbers have lagged a bit from last year. However, the staff — which includes Troy product Marley Hilton — still ranks in the top 50 in the nation in ERA and in the top 20 in strikeouts.
Zaleski knows that capturing a second straight title won’t be easy but believes her players have the tools to get it done, if they execute.
“It’s going to be tough,” Zaleski said. “When you are that person, when you are that team, that’s who people are gunning for. When you go in as that team, everyone is showing up against you with their best game. We have the talent. It’s just preparing them for that level of play every game and every inning. That’s the pressure that’s going to be put on them.”
The sophomores who have already felt that pressure are ready to thrive once again.
“Because we’ve experienced it before, that’s more relaxing,” Stewart said. “I’m not surprised we got back to Utah. We have a lot of momentum and are in a good spot.”
As for the freshmen, they relish the opportunity to prove themselves on the national stage.
“It’s a dream come true for sure,” Parker said. “It’s just really exciting to be with my teammates in Utah, fighting for a championship. I think we are peaking at the right time.”