JAGUAR SOFTBALL’S ORTIZ TAKES ADVANTAGE OF SUMMER OPPORTUNITY

For decades, summer leagues such as the Cape Cod League have provided ample opportunity for collegiate baseball players to work on improving their skill sets. Not until recently, though, has there been an avenue for collegiate softball players. 

One such path for collegiate softball players the past two summers has been the Florida Gulf Coast League, and over the summer University of South Alabama softball player Victoria Ortiz was awarded an opportunity to compete in the league and made the most of it.

The FGCL has been a summer destination for collegiate baseball players, but last summer the organization began offering an opportunity for collegiate softball players from D-I, D-II, D-III and junior college levels to showcase and build on their talents. The league started out with just six teams in 2020, but grew to 10 teams this past summer.

Interest in the league and the journey down to South Florida initially began following the conclusion of her freshman season as Ortiz learned about the league through social media and kept up with it.

Then the 2021 season didn’t really get off to the start that Jaguar outfielder – who had earned first-team all-Sun Belt Conference honors and set a program record for doubles in a season in 2019 as a true freshman – had hoped. The Mobile, Ala., native was returning from a knee injury that forced her to miss all of the 2020 campaign. 

After having such a stellar freshman campaign and coming off the injury, Ortiz let her own personal pressures and expectations get to her. 

“There were a lot of things that I was dealing with at the start of this past season,” Ortiz noted. “I did really well my freshman year. Coming into my sophomore season, I was ready to go and had high expectations of myself, but then I suffered the knee injury. This past spring, I was also trying to recreate and do better than my freshman season coming back from the injury after not having played for nearly two years. I also had to learn how to grieve for the first time as I had to deal with my best friend passing away right before the start of the season. I felt like I had the world on my shoulders and I couldn’t put everything in individual buckets. Everything was sitting on me. It was a really hard year for me mentally because I overwhelmed myself with way too much.”

“Vic was a huge part of our offensive power during the 2019 season,” associate head coach Kristiana McCain said. “When she was injured in the fall of 2019 and then missed the entire 2020 season, it created some challenges for her mentally and physically. When an athlete is battling an injury, it can add additional pressure to get back where he/she was prior to that injury, which is what I think contributed to her slower start last season. Vic is a competitor and continued to stay the course, which ultimately led to her late season success. Vic has high expectations for herself and she will tell you that she wanted to contribute more offensively for her team last season.”

Ortiz played in just 21 of South’s first 28 games to start the season and batted .222, but the Mobile native rebounded and hit .347 over her final 17 games of 2021. The game that seemed to spark the turnaround was a 3-for-3 performance against Nicholls that featured a double, a home run, three RBIs and two runs scored. She ended the season ranked second on the team with 10 extra-base hits. 

“Before I hurt my knee going into my sophomore season, I wanted to play summer ball somewhere,” Ortiz said. “They were the only league that I was aware of that provided that opportunity. This past season didn’t really go the way that I had wanted it to go; I wasn’t playing up to my expectations. I knew I needed to play, I needed more at-bats, I needed to gain my confidence back. I just felt like I needed a re-set and I felt they provided me the best way to achieve that goal. I was pretty lucky to get a spot, because they had another outfielder drop out and I was able to fill her spot.”

Much like her season, the process started off slow, but quickly picked up.

“This past April, I felt like I needed to try and play in their league and I reached out to them,” Ortiz said. “I didn’t hear anything back from them until after we returned from the Gainesville Regional, so things happened quickly for me. I pretty much got a text from the owner of the team I played for, talked with Coach [Becky] Clark about the opportunity a day later and she was all for it, so I packed my bags and went down there about two weeks later.”

Once she arrived in Orlando, Ortiz was matched up with some talented competition as league team rosters featured many players from Power 5 programs as well as top programs from the Sun Belt in Louisiana and Texas State.

The junior-to-be took advantage of the opportunity and immersed herself in the game and learned some things about herself. 

“My focus was just softball there,” Ortiz stated. “It was an environment that wasn’t really stressful. You play six days a week with a game a day with the exception of Sunday. Playing in my hometown, my parents are close by, so when I went to Orlando I was pretty much on my own for the first time for about six weeks. I had a hitting coach on the team and she helped, but it was really about me and what I wanted to do to become a better player. If you’re messing up at the plate one day, you’ve got to be able to figure out how to correct that the next day.

“I used the opportunity to know that I can depend on myself. To know that if I’m having trouble at the plate, I can fix it on my own. I don’t really need all the other outlets. There were so many things that I needed to learn about myself. I needed to grow up a little more. At the end of the day though, you just have to play. This past season, I was trying to be Super Woman and do all these big things that were too hard to focus on at one time. Down there, it was just about me getting out there and playing the game that’ s in front of me.

“I just had to know that I could trust myself and know that I could come through in different situations.”

The new process for Ortiz worked as she tied for third in the FGCL in doubles with seven and ranked just outside the top 10 in batting average and hits. She led her club at the plate with a .403 average and 29 hits, while recording four home runs, 11 runs scored and 11 RBIs. For her play, she was selected to compete in the league’s All-Star Game.

“That was definitely a goal going into play down there,” Ortiz said of the honor. “I wanted to go down there and be one of the best players. I knew if I just went down there and played the game that I know how to play that I was going to be successful. It was just about me knowing myself and doing my thing. It took a lot of work for me to stay consistent and be mentally consistent every single day, because that’s what you have to do when you’re playing six days a week.

“There’s a lot of focus you have to put into the game, so getting the all-star honor was really cool. I was able to play with a lot of really good players that were from all over the place and big-time programs. It gave me a new sense of confidence and made me remember that I belonged; I was able to play up to their level. I’m able to play and be one of the best out there. I can be one of the best just by being myself.”

Ortiz helped lead her team to a 12-4 victory in the All-Star Game as well. 

South Alabama head coach Becky Clark believes the extra at-bats Ortiz was able to receive as a result of competing in the league will help her return to her all-conference form.

“Vic has had a lot of adversity thrown her way and I think she just really needed to play through it,” Clark said. “Sometimes as a player and a hitter you have to grind through the bad times in order to break through to the good stuff.  Hitters need at-bats, and especially game day at-bats, to get their timing and approach in a place where they are comfortable at the plate. You saw her starting to get comfortable at the end of the season and I feel like she will be back to her freshman year form going into this year. 

“I think the chance to relax, play ball, and get back to being Vic is the most important part of this. I know she put up some great numbers and she needed that from a confidence and mental standpoint. Vic is incredibly talented and driven so for her it is about getting into a groove and allowing herself to play. I think this summer gave her a chance to get back to that and I am excited for her going into this year.”

McCain also noted the benefit of Ortiz being able to participate in the league this summer.

“I think Vic’s opportunity to play in a summer league was extremely beneficial,” McCain said. “She was able to take some of the pressure off herself and play ball. The extra at bats helped her find her swing again, and that will pay huge dividends. I think the success she had this summer will contribute to her increased confidence. I expect she will be back to true ‘Vic fashion’ this fall and leading into our 2022 season.”

Ortiz believes that having this summer league provides a much-needed avenue to help other collegiate softball players.

“It’s huge,” Ortiz said. “I’ve always taken the summer very serious in regards to my preparation for the upcoming year. I’ve always stayed here, lifted, hit and done whatever I needed to do, but there’s nothing like being able to get live at-bats. I believe I had around 80 [plate appearances] while I was down there. Just having that experience was huge. I felt so much growth within myself. I can see the benefit of players having this avenue. If it were to grow one day into something similar to what baseball has had for a long time, it would be incredible because I know first-hand what can come from being able to compete in it.” 

Clark echoed Ortiz’s sentiments about the newest tool for collegiate softball players.

“It is huge for softball players to have these opportunities because it gives them a chance to get additional at-bats and work on their swing and approach without the magnifying glass that is on them at the collegiate level,” Clark stated. “This is the reason MLB has winter ball, so the guys who need extra work have an opportunity to get it. For softball players, there are limited opportunities after graduation so the chance to make the most of your four years is a big deal and these leagues give them a chance to get in the extra work to do that.

“I would love to see these leagues expanded and visibility increased because they provide a great opportunity for collegiate players.”

There may soon be more opportunities. Due to overwhelming interest from players all around the country this summer, plans are in the works for the league to expand and move into divisions for D-I, D-II, D-III and junior college in 2022. 

But as far as the biggest lesson that Ortiz took from the experience?

“We’re all human is probably my biggest message,” Ortiz said. “Competing in the summer league helped me learn that. I was facing pitchers from Oklahoma, Oregon and Michigan. I didn’t know that they were from these big schools. I was able to hit off of them and have success. It made me realize that we’re all human and go through things, but at the end of the day, we’re all just playing softball. It doesn’t matter what school someone else is playing at, compared to you we’re all pretty much the same age and we’re going to make mistakes. If we make mistakes, we just have to learn from them and keep going.

“I know I keep saying it, but I’ve learned that I’m not Super Woman, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned from the past year is that I’m human. Whatever I can handle at that time is what I can handle. I’ll keep learning and keep growing.”

After the late season run that she and her teammates made to return to the 2021 postseason and advance to the Sun Belt Conference Championship game, Ortiz plans on holding onto the lessons learned during her summer experience and passing them along to her teammates.

“Last year was a pivotal year for us as a program and obviously this spring we expect to be back in the postseason and go even further,” Ortiz said. “For me personally, I want to stay true to myself and not try to be Super Woman or do everything so big. I just want to do my part and play my role. I know if I do my part and do the things I know how to do, I can help my team.

 “We have that taste in our mouth now, so our hunger is stronger. I feel like for all the returning players, there’s no other option than to get back there. We know what we want to do and we know what it takes to get there. For the younger players coming into the program, we want to help them help us get there and work together.”

For Ortiz and the rest of the 2022 Jaguar softball roster, the road to meeting that goal starts now as the team opens up fall practice this month. 

For more information about South Alabama athletics, check back with www.usajaguars.com, and follow the Jaguars at www.twitter.com/WeAreSouth_JAGS. Season tickets for all Jaguar athletic events can be purchased by calling (251) 461-1USA (1872).

Join the Bullpen Club, the softball specific support club of the Jaguar Athletic Fund.  Members have access to purchase parking passes and receive Jaguar Softball gear.  All donations to the Bullpen Club go directly to support the South Alabama softball program.  For more information on how you can join visit:  jaguarathleticfund.com/bullpenclub.

—USA—

Print Friendly Version
College Sports, Softball, Sports, University of South Alabama Tags: