The Claremont-Mudd-Scripps softball team has undergone dramatic changes in the past two seasons. In addition to player turnover creating a very young team, the Athenas hired a new head coach late in 2017, Gina Oaks Garcia.
Former longtime coach Betsy Hipple, who led the Athenas to four Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference victories over 12 seasons with the team, stepped away in fall 2017 and was replaced by Oaks Garcia, who now enters her second season at the helm.
Oaks Garcia is a former All-American player at Cal State Fullerton and has played softball for the U.S. national team and in various national and international professional leagues. Her experience as a player has served her well as a coach, her players say.
“She’s played professionally, and she knows the game really well,” All-American pitcher Chloe Amarilla CM ’19 said.
Oaks Garcia, who was unavailable for an interview, was a pitcher in her playing days, a factor that influences her coaching strategies.
“She focuses a lot on her pitching staff, she knows the mechanics and drills,” Amarilla said. “She’s really helpful for the battery.”
The “battery,” a common nickname for the pitcher and catcher on a team, is a critical strength for the Athenas. It includes Amarilla, just named to the NCAA Division III Player of the Year Watch List, and Maddie Valdez CM ’21, a catcher who hit .347 and led the team in RBIs last season, and smacked a home run in the Athenas’ season-opening win over Whitworth.
Team morale is as high as ever, in part due to Oaks Garcia’s coaching, Amarilla said.
“We’ve either been too serious or too much on the fun side,” the senior said, referring to past seasons, “and we’ve struck a balance this year.”
Alexis Singh SC ’22 agreed.
“We’ve created a lot of great bonds with the older players and the younger girls,” Singh said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Largely due to Oaks Garcia, the team is more tight-knit than ever before, a sentiment echoed by first-years and seniors alike.
“She really focuses on having a family,” Amarilla said. “We do Christmas cards and a lot more fun things as a team. We went to a hip-hop class during ‘hell week,’” a week of intense training at the end of winter break.
Singh added: “We do a lot of team bonding events with the coaches. I think right now we’re already starting to click and it’s still pretty early in the season.”
Despite the breaks from traditional training, the defending SCIAC champions are keeping their eyes on the prize.
“We know our competition level is there,” Amarilla said. “We’re good enough, and we should be beating these teams.”
Both players said the team already had the raw talent necessary for success when Oaks Garcia took over, but her guidance has been crucial for the team’s upward direction.
“They want us to have fun, but they also want us to keep that competitive streak in us,” Singh said. “It really comes down to the mental game, and I think that’s really important to coach.”
The coaching transition has been relatively smooth despite a chaotic start, according to Amarilla. Hired late in the fall semester in 2017, Oaks Garcia had limited time to get to know the team and the players. But it didn’t seem to matter, as the Athenas won the SCIAC title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“She came in with the right mentality. She didn’t want to do a complete 180 and change things right away,” Amarilla said. “It was a gradual shift in the coaching style and tactics.”
Oaks Garcia inherited a strong team, though, and the Athenas have high hopes for this season.
“This year has been a lot better, because she’s been able to make this program her program,” Amarilla said. “Coach is a really positive force, and it’s hard not to enjoy being coached by her.”