Senior day is typically met with a mix of joyful and saddening emotions for most athletes. However, the graduating members of CSUF softball will look back upon their final day of Big West conference play fondly as the Titans secured their third consecutive Big West conference championship.
Fullerton overcame many obstacles during its quest to the three-peat, including multiple losing streaks and off-field issues that complicated matters for two of its three main pitchers.
This season, the Titans hold their worst overall record of the last three seasons, but their best conference record over that same stretch.
“For me personally, (winning our third straight Big West conference championship) is just a tribute to the seniors and the culture of excellence that they have created,” Titans head coach Kelly Ford said.
Ford constructed one of the most difficult preseason schedules for CSUF, including games against USA Today’s No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Florida, No. 6 Arizona State, No. 19 Kentucky and No. 24 UC Berkeley. She believed the early-season rigor would prepare the Titans for the difficulty of conference and help capture their third consecutive Big West title.
Heading into conference play, Fullerton had lost nine of its last 13 games, including two blown leads in their final losses against Loyola Marymount. Once they entered the Big West, the Titans rattled off six straight wins, which Ford attributed to the experience of the seniors.
“They said ‘Hey, we’ll show you how to get this done in conference and they threw us on their backs and carried us,” Ford said.
The following series was not as easy as CSUF hosted Long Beach State, which was ranked 18th nationally at the time and tied for first place in the conference.
After losing 11-2 in the first game of the series, the Titans squeezed out two one-run victories over the 49ers, which ultimately decided who would take first place.
Catcher Julia Valenzuela, who hit a walk-off double to deliver the final win of the series, said the experience and leadership of the seniors helps the team keep its head on straight.
“The calmness that they bring is really helpful for our team because sometimes we’ll get too hyped up and overthink moments. They help us bring it back down to simplify the game and keep things as it is,” Valenzuela said.
Pitcher Sophie Frost and Valenzuela said they both believe shortstop Shianne Brannan exhibits that calmness the best. Brannan said she feels its her job as a four-year starter to lead by example.
“I know a lot of girls look to me because I’m so calm out there … They can start thinking ‘Oh my gosh, we’re in first. We’re going to go (to the postseason)’ but we’re not there yet. We have to stick to that mindset one day at a time until we’re there,” Brannan said following the Long Beach series in April.
Leading by example is common among the seniors. Third baseman Bryanna Ybarra sets the tone for her teammates by putting in work before, during and after practice.
Following a series sweep on the road against Hawaii, the Titans were given a day off after taking a red-eye flight to return to campus. During an interview with Ybarra the next day, she said she used the day off, but teammate and senior Brooke Clemetson interrupted to share an anecdote about her teammate’s nonstop work ethic.
“We got back from Hawaii at 6:30 in the morning and she went to hit immediately. So, no, there isn’t a day she takes off,” Clemetson said.
Even with countless hours of practice, fun remains the overwhelming theme of the 2018 team. CSUF’s hard work during practice is evident through its success, but the different ways the Titans keep spirits light often goes unnoticed.
Brannan said that before every home game or road trip, Ford carves out an hour of time “to chill and de-stress.”
Weekend mood ? pic.twitter.com/Ztk1oEZPxl
— Titan Softball (@CSUFSoftball) April 12, 2018
Ybarra said this senior class made “dancing before games” and “turning up in the locker room” a priority because past senior classes had the tendency to take the fun out of the sport.
Because they understand that every group has its own personality, Clemetson and left fielder Sammie Vandiver said they don’t believe the prior classes led the wrong way. However, they knew going into the season that this senior class was more relaxed than those that came before.
“This team in general, we obviously do better when we’re dancing and having a good time, so I think we just tried to make that environment where it’s clear that there’s more to life than what goes on with softball,” Clemetson said.
— Kenzie Grimes (@KenzieGrimes20) April 1, 2018
After Fullerton’s seniors were honored with flowers during Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s senior day, they quickly realized how close the end of the season was. Clemetson said a few of her teammates had started to get emotional when discussing the end of their college careers.
Vandiver, on the other hand, said she consciously tried to suppress her emotions until their senior day. However, what she started thinking about were the lessons she learned on the field that she will apply in her life after softball.
“I complained a lot when I was younger, like my freshman and sophomore days. I feel like, in the real world, nobody is going to put up with my complaining, so I’ve realized that. Obviously, there are going to be times where I complain, but I’ve tried not to whine and b—- about s— that’s going on,” Vandiver said.
As the end of their collegiate careers come to an end, the seniors are in lockstep with the legacy they want to leave for their younger teammates.
“(We want them to remember that) we gave the game everything we had and we played this last season to the best of our abilities, had no regrets and left it all out on the field. It’s cliche but it’s the truth,” Clemetson said.
Brannan shared a similar sentiment when giving advice to the underclassmen.
“Play every game like it’s your last. Whether it’s your freshman or senior year, you never know when it’s going to end. Go out there every day working hard, whether its practice or game time. Instill that good work ethic in you, put your head down and go to work,” Brannan said.
Although their time as Titans will come to an end following the postseason, the legacy of the 2018 senior class will live on through the three consecutive Big West conference championships they contributed to as a part of CSUF softball.