In one of the first University of Utah athletics department meetings of the 2022-23 school year last fall, head softball coach Amy Hogue threw out the not-so-subtle warning.

“Last year, when we didn’t get picked and a lot of teams that we had beat went to the World Series, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we were right there.’ So they had to change some things, and they did.” — Utah softball coach Amy Hogue

Employees shouldn’t be planning post-graduation cruises or vacations in mid-May, the 16th-year coach said, because this 2023 Utes team was going to be good enough to be picked as one of 16 teams across the country to host an NCAA Regional.

“I told them we better have people still in town after graduation to help us run this awesome event,” Hogue said.

Well, Hogue’s prediction has come true — but not without a few scary moments, such as a few weeks ago when the Utes were swept on their home field by No. 2 UCLA, falling 3-0, 10-1 and 11-3 to the mighty Bruins.

Talk about recovering nicely. Utah bounced back from that comeuppance by sweeping No. 13 Oregon in Eugene and then winning the inaugural Pac-12 tournament. Utah (37-13) downed California 6-2, No. 5 Washington 8-4 and then got revenge over UCLA with a 7-4 victory in the championship game in Tucson, Arizona.

So here the Utes are, hosting an NCAA regional for the first time since 2017. They will meet Southern Illinois (36-18) at approximately 1:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon, shortly after Baylor (39-16) and Ole Miss (30-26) clash at 11 a.m.

Winners meet at 1 p.m. Saturday in the double-elimination event.

For the Utes, it is all about winning a national championship now, and Hogue says she has a team that can do it.

Head coach Amy Hogue works with the Utah softball team during a practice at the Dumke Family Softball Stadium in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“That’s all they have ever talked about, is winning championships,” she said. “And people laughed at us for saying it out loud. … And then as we got into the season, it still felt like a long shot all the way into the last weekend when we swept Oregon and then won the Pac-12 tournament, and then all of a sudden, look who is hosting. Exactly as this team set out to do.”

Tuesday, the Softball America Top 25 poll moved Utah up three spots to No. 12 in the country, the highest ranking for the program since it reached No. 11 in 2017. Utah is No. 14 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll.

This team is legitimate — just as Lynne Roberts’ Utah women’s basketball team was last winter. Of course, they’ve known it all along.

Should the 15th-seeded Utes emerge from the regional, they will likely face No. 2 seed UCLA in Los Angeles in one of eight super regionals — if the Bruins win their regional, as expected.

The eight winners of the super regionals will advance to the 2023 Women’s College World Series June 1-9 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Utah hasn’t been to a WCWS since 1994, which just happened to be Hogue’s senior season in the program. As a star infielder, she also helped Utah get to the WCWS her freshman season in 1991.

But the coach isn’t departing experiences and wisdom from those trips to the Big Dance to this group of players, and there’s a good reason why. Somebody else on her staff was just there.

Pitching coach Paige Parker joined the staff in August 2021 after a spectacular career at national powerhouse Oklahoma. Parker was a two-time national champion with the Sooners, and an all-Big 12 first-teamer four times.

“She is the one that is more relatable to them in that aspect,” Hogue said. “Yes, they are hearing about playing in the NCAA Tournament, but not from me. I never talk about (1994).”

Julia Jimenez, center, crosses home plate during a fun game of “backward softball,” in which players must bat and throw with their weak side and the pattern of bases is reversed, at the start of a Utah softball practice at the Dumke Family Softball Stadium in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Actually, those chats with Parker have a name, and have become a team tradition. They are called “CP Talks,” and they are given often.

“She talks about what it feels like, what it takes to be prepared for it, what to expect,” Hogue said. “And those talks have been magical for this group. If we forget to have one on a weekend, or it has been too long since one, the players will request one.”

What the players don’t need, Hogue said, is a coach who feels like she needs to boost their confidence. They have that in spades, even before rolling through the Pac-12 tournament by a combined score of 21-10.

“We don’t worry about that, because they believe so much in themselves that they have always thought this was something they could do,” she said. “We have had a couple of injuries, but we have kids on the bench that have contributed, and we think that we are strong all the way through the lineup, even with kids off the bench contributing. The faith they have in themselves and each other is super strong.”

Hogue said that’s the factor that was missing last year, when the Utes went 27-27 and held a tournament selection show watch party, only to be left out again.

Hogue said that empty feeling of getting snubbed has served as motivation this year.

In the offseason, “we got a list together of things they needed to do differently, and they did all of them,” she said. “Last year, when we didn’t get picked and a lot of teams that we had beat went to the World Series, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we were right there.’ So they had to change some things, and they did.”

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It also helped that four seniors who are now graduate students opted to return, including pitcher Sydney Sandez and utility player Ellessa Bonstrom, who leads the club with 10 home runs. Fellow grad transfers Elicia “Eli” Espinosa and Jordyn Gasper have added maturity and leadership.

“Having them back has been giant. I mean, really giant,” Hogue said. “Two of them have been absolutely critical as physical players and key contributors every weekend. And then Jordyn and Eli, the two that aren’t on the field as much, have played critical roles off the bench as leaders. All four of them have been really important. I can’t even picture not having every one of them.”

A program-record eight Utes earned Pac-12 postseason honors. Leading hitter Aliya Belarde, Bonstrom, Abby Dayton and ace pitcher Mariah Lopez earned first-team spots, while Belarde is on the all-defensive roster and Dayton made the all-freshman squad.

Haley Denning, Sophie Jacquez and Julia Jimenez made the second team and Sandez is on the third team.

Hayley Denning fields a ball during a Utah softball practice at the Dumke Family Softball Stadium in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News