The Colorado Mesa softball team has had a roller coaster ride in the rankings in 2017. Coming off a 40-win campaign, the Mavericks entered the NFCA preseason poll at No. 19. They reached as high as No. 14 before exiting the poll completely just two weeks ago.
Now, amid a 17-game win streak, the Mavericks are back among the nation’s best.
Part of the reason behind the turbulent start to 2017 was that the Mavericks were forced to be road warriors, spending two weeks away from their home in Grand Junction. It didn't go as well as they would have wanted.
“It was better to lose early on,” 2016 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year Brooke Hodgson said. “It really kicked it in gear for us. We refocused, regrouped and we had a new plan. Being nationally ranked, it’s definitely there, but it’s not a worry for us. We’re just trying to win our games and play the best softball that we can.
“From the get-go, Coach told us we were going to have a target on our backs. We have welcomed it. We want people to underestimate us now, especially with those two losses we had right away. People didn’t think much of us then. Now, we’re getting that respect back in the RMAC and we’re going to keep pushing through to do that.”
The Mavericks returned home with a vengeance, going 12-0 on their first home stand of the season. They outscored their opponents 114-16 during that span, jumping back into the national spotlight at No. 24.
“It wasn’t too bad being on the road,” Hodgson said. “We know we still have to take it to them. We’re more comfortable being at home. We have our fans there and know our home-field advantage and how it all plays out. It was nice being home three weeks in a row.”
One would think losing 2016 RMAC Offensive Player of the Year Makayla Kovac to graduation would hurt. Instead, the Mavs haven’t missed a beat.
Or many pitches, either.
Seven returners stabilize a lineup that boasts one of the most prolific offenses in Division II. One year after CMU lead the nation with a .361 batting average, they are back in the top five with a .382 mark. The same goes for on base percentage (.453) and run production, scoring 8.29 a game.
“Honestly, it’s just a lot of fun,” Hodgson said. “We have no holes. And we have so many girls on the bench being called on for situational hitting, and they come through almost every time. That’s what’s awesome about our lineup, anyone can do it at any given time.”
Leading the charge is Hodgson.
She has always been lethal with the bat, but this season she has taken it to an entirely new level. One of the esteemed members of the NFCA Preseason Player of the Year Watch List, she is currently hitting .482 with 10 home runs and 38 RBIs, all bests in the potent Colorado Mesa lineup.
“I don’t think I was nervous,” Hodgson said of the prestigious preseason honors. “I was excited for my junior year. We had Makayla, which was awesome. But I felt like it was my turn to shine and I was ready to work hard for it.”
Ben Garcia has worked hard as the head coach to put Colorado Mesa back on the map. His first season in 2015 saw a six-win improvement. Last season, the Mavericks improved another seven games and returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.
“My freshman year, he got a team that was built for him,” Hodgson said. “He didn’t have much depth, so there wasn’t much competition within our team. We were complacent.
“Now, he has brought in a bunch of new, great players and keeps doing so every year, so he builds that competitive feel throughout practice and inter-squad. Now we’re competing every day. It makes game day easier.”
The Mavericks opened the NCAA regionals last year by defeating No. 1-ranked West Texas A&M before losing two straight one-run games to the Lady Buffs and being outsted from the tournament.
“That’s the turning point for our program I believe," Hodgson said. "Winning that first game against West Texas A&M and having two tough late-inning losses, we knew from then on out we wanted something bigger than the RMAC. We want to keep going further and all the way to national championship.”
“The last regional game last year left us with a sour taste. We’ve been hunting and fighting for more this year. We honestly see ourselves going all the way. We’re just working toward that now.
Garcia has pieced together a team that appears to be a perennial 40-win threat. Behind a young roster, a powerful offense and an improving pitching staff, they’re in the mix for the RMAC once again after a huge four-game sweep last weekend.
RECAP: Softball winning streak grows to 17 after sweep at Mines. https://t.co/1wyy9FZqQV— CMU Mavericks (@CMUMavericks) March 27, 2017
“We were pretty pumped up,” Hodgson said. “We didn’t try to look too far ahead. We ended up with four wins, which is awesome. Now we want to build off that. Keep winning, keep going strong and try to get on top of the RMAC. Try to win that season title.”
For Hodgson and her fellow teammates, that still isn’t good enough. This is a team that has just three seniors on their roster. This offense is quickly proving that last season was no fluke, and that the Mavericks may be ready for a long postseason run for years to come.
“It’s very exciting,” Hodgson said. “You don’t want to look too far ahead, but you definitely find yourself doing it. Coach does a really good job of keeping us grounded, keeping us level. We work one day at a time. We'll take this past series, and work on the mistakes that we had and clean them up for the next series.”