That the No. 16 Utah softball team has been ranked in the top 25 for much of the season has surprised many observers.

But for coach Amy Hogue, this success was something that she expected in many respects. 

“They had a little chip on their shoulder from the way the season ended last year. They felt like they were a team that could have made a postseason run and it (ticked) them off just enough to train like they had never trained in the summer.” — Utah coach Amy Hogue

She saw it coming by the way her players worked and prepared during the offseason.

A year ago, the Utes finished with a 27-27 record and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. That stung, and it has served as a motivator. 

“They had a little chip on their shoulder from the way the season ended last year. They felt like they were a team that could have made a postseason run and it (ticked) them off just enough to train like they had never trained in the summer. This fall, when they came back, they were different,” Hogue said. “We got to build on that. They’ve never looked back.

“So it’s really been a lot of days between the Selection Show last year when they got fired up and to this day and they’ve done nothing but show consistency throughout. I’m not surprised.”

In 2022, Utah lost a bunch of games by one run. And players resolved to do the extra work required to win those kind of contests. 

Now, as the season winds down, the Utes’ goals of winning a Pac-12 championship, and hosting the NCAA regionals, are within reach. 

Starting Friday, Utah (30-10) hosts No. 2 UCLA for a critical three-game series on Senior Weekend. The Bruins (43-4) have won 17 consecutive games. Utah will honor six seniors during the final regular-season homestand. 

“Everyone’s fired up for this series,” Hogue said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm. I’m anxious to see how our team handles that atmosphere.”

Sweeping Stanford

Utah coach Amy Hogue celebrates during a game against Stanford at Dumke Family Softball field in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 16, 2023. | Eli Rehmer, Utah Athletics

Perhaps the defining moment of the season thus far happened in mid-April, when Utah swept then-No. 5 Stanford in three games at home. 

That included a pair of one-run victories over the Cardinal. 

“The Stanford sweep has really set the tone for this team,” said pitcher Mariah Lopez. “We now feel like we can beat anyone. We had no fear. We can beat any team in the country if we play as a team. Sweeping that series has given us a lot of confidence.”

For her efforts, Lopez was named the Division I Wilson/National Fastpitch Coaches Association Pitcher of the Week. That week, which also included a win over BYU, she posted a 3-0 record with an 0.89 ERA with 29 strikeouts over 23 ⅔ innings. 

On the season, Lopez has posted a 14-3 record and a 2.38 ERA with seven complete games. 

Hogue said that as big as that series was for her team, that result was a byproduct of the players’ willingness to sacrifice and put in extra work, such as showing up at the weight room at 7 a.m., even after losses. 

Utes on the air

No. 2 UCLA (43-4)
at No. 16 Utah (30-10)
Dumke Family Softball Stadium
Friday, 6 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m.; Sunday, noon
TV: Pac-12 Network

“Those are the things that turn into the Stanford weekend,” she said. “Those are the things that are showing up consistently from this team.”

Meanwhile, since the Stanford sweep, Hogue has noticed a change in Lopez. 

“She’s really tasted success lots of times but I’ve never seen her take the reins and lead this team like she has since Stanford. She hasn’t stopped,” she said. “She’s like, ‘Give me the ball.’ She used to kind of falter a little bit. Then you think, ‘Oh no, she’s doubting.’ She stopped doing that once we beat Stanford.

“She threw a gem against BYU. Then she helped us close out a win the next day. She continued to go in the first game of the series and win on the road. She’s doing big things and I hope she’ll never look back. She’s so key for us. She’s thrown the heck out of it.”

Offensively, the Utes have been led by Aliya Belarde (.435 batting average), Julia Jimenez (.382), Haley Denning (.371), Sophie Jacquez (.364) and Ellessa Bonstrom (.357). 

Bonstrom was a first-team All-Pac-12 performer last season and a third-team All-America selection. 

“Ellessa Bonstrom is doing Ellessa Bonstrom type of things. She’s on base all the time and stealing more bases for us. She’s getting walked a lot,” Hogue said. “Jiminez, Belarde and Jacquez are killing it. And they’re silently doing it. Nobody is talking about them. They are so critical.

“Sophie hasn’t had numbers like this ever. Ally has had them at times but hasn’t been this consistent. Now I have two, three, four hitters that are a tough run for pitchers to deal with. Those four are absolutely critical to our offensive success.” 

“I think we went into the season knowing that this season would be different — more competitive,” Lopez said. “We’re really gelling as a team this year. That’s really helping us succeed so far. It’s just the chemistry we have. This team is super close, we get along and we’re all connected.”

‘Step over the line’

During the offseason, Hogue leveraged her players’ disappointment and urgency to be among the best teams in the country. 

Because the Utes had lost so many close games last year, they went about doing whatever they could to make up the difference. 

“We talked about how so many things can add up to getting that extra run. How do you turn that single into a double? Well, you get stronger. How do I get that pitch to jump another two inches to strike out a batter?” Hogue said. “To win at a high level in this sport, and be a part of a postseason run, you have to do more than what the NCAA rules allow you to do and you have to do it on your own.

“They went into the details of things and they decided that it really wasn’t out of reach to do if they all bought into doing a little bit more.” 

Hogue and her assistant coaches, DJ Gasso and Paige Parker, implemented physical challenges to her players known as “Step over the line” to prove to themselves that they could do hard things.

That’s translated to victories and a national ranking. 

“This team has chosen to step over the line. That means to do something harder than they’ve ever done before in order to get something they’ve never had,” Hoge said. “That’s obviously us challenging them, reminding them that being a bubble team was a terrible place to be and that you can control that by making sure we’re nowhere near the bubble this year and they’ve done all of those things.”

Shoveling snow

Because of the inclement weather this spring, a handful of games have been postponed or canceled. 

But Hogue has leveraged that to her team’s advantage. When snow has covered the field, her players have gotten up early in the morning a few times to help the grounds crew remove the snow with shovels. 

“Their toughness level grows and grows and grows. It’s been good for us. Even if they hate it,” she said. “I’m a parent of three. I love these kind of lessons. They’re not going to freeze to death. I’m a little bit old school that way. Get a shovel. If you want to play, help us get the snow off.

“If you want it bad enough, you’ll show up with a shovel and bring three friends. They’ve done such a good job with it,” she continued. “Those are the type of things that I’ve been pretty surprised about. I probably regret saying, ‘I think they’re too soft.’ I haven’t said that for a really long time. They’ve proven time and time again that they want this.

“They’re not just saying it anymore. They’re doing the things that it takes to step over the line and to do the next-level things to give them an opportunity to do something big.”

‘A special group’

Not only has Hogue’s team showed up to shovel a field, it has showed up and taken care of business on the field. 

Last Tuesday, the Utes visited Utah Valley University for a midweek game. There were plenty of distractions. Utah was coming off a tough loss at No. 9 Washington two days earlier. And with classes ending, projects were due and final exams on the horizon. 

That morning, there were snow flurries and it was chilly and windy outside.

“Those are games that, in the past, have bitten us in the butt,” Hogue said. “Are they going to show? Are they going to do things the way they did in the past?”

Before the game, Hogue addressed her team.

“I told them, ‘My goal for you today is, I want a shutout. Is that too much to ask?’ They said no, let’s go get it. Don’t beat them 9-1 or 8-2. A shutout. They went and got it.”

Yes, the Utes blanked UVU, 9-0. 

“They were fantastic,” Hogue said. “Our pitching showed up. They continue to show me that they’re willing to stay where their feet are and not, even if they’re thinking ahead, they’re doing a good job of taking care of business every day.”

Utah would love to win the Pac-12 title and host an NCAA regional. But for now, the Utes are savoring the season as it goes. 

“We’re not doing a lot of planning ahead. We’re trying to enjoy the moments. You don’t often get a team that’s special. They’re a special group,” Hogue said. “They’ve invested in each other a lot. That’s one of the things they said needed to change.

“We had a lot of talent but our chemistry was kind of broken. We had pieces and pockets of people that loved each other but we didn’t cross over the bridge enough to the other groups. They did that all summer.” 

That’s why Hogue decided not to pick team captains for the first time since taking the helm of the program 15 years ago. And her players were just fine with that decision. 

“We have 23 leaders and a lot of voices that are going the same direction,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to play us right now.”

No, Hogue isn’t surprised by how well her team has played this season. But she’s gratified by the way it has performed. 

“I feel like the pieces were coming together so well that it was obvious to us that you can’t sleep on the Utes. It’s been that way the whole season,” she said. “It’s not like we’ve been just good of late. We’ve been doing well the whole time and we’ve been pretty consistent in a game that serves up a lot of highs and lows.

“I’m really proud of what this team has done and the maturity level that they have and the things they’ve worked so hard on to be good at that are showing up on the field.”

Members of the Utah softball team flash the U after game vs. Loyola Marymount at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Palm Springs, California, on Friday, February 24, 2023. | Eli Rehmer, Utah Athletics