Softball team readies for upcoming season

If you ask any member of the Gator softball team what the most important ingredient is for their success this year, you will often get the same answer.

A photo of the SF State softball team practicing

The SF State softball team practices as Coach Cristina Byrne looks on.

"Chemistry," said junior Cara Spence, who plays first base.

"We're all a family; we're a sisterhood," she added. "It sounds corny but it's true."

That quality isn't easy to come by, considering about half of the team's players are new to SF State. But the team has bonded in the preseason, practicing twice a day and participating in service and team-building events.

"That's the thing that excites us most this year -- some new energy," said Coach Cristina Byrne, who is entering her fifth season leading the softball program. Of the 22-member team, 12 are returning players and ten are new, including four transfers and six freshmen.

The Gators' home opener is a double header on Feb. 24 against UC San Diego, last year's NCAA Division II National Champions. The Gators won 18 of 53 games last year, placing last in the California Collegiate Athletic Association.

"I feel that our team chemistry this year is a big factor and difference from last year," said Byrne, who is joined on the coaching staff by Tara Tembey, in her second year at SF State, and first year coach Ernie Munoz.

Even though the team plays in "the toughest conference in Division II," said Byrne, they have a comfortable schedule to look forward to this year. They play at home for long stretches of March and April, known as the "dog days" of the season, when juggling academics and travel becomes hard.

But academics are not usually a problem for the Gators, who posted a 3.2 team grade point average for the last two semesters. Byrne said the discipline and work ethic needed to do well in class translates onto the field.

"We're trying to make them better players, but also better students and better people," she said.

Byrne has made sure that the softball program has not just been about softball. Players participate in community service events for breast cancer awareness, organize team fundraising dinners and "adopted" a girl with a brain tumor four years ago to spend time with.

A photo of SF State softball coach Cristina Byrne

Cristina Byrne is entering her fifth year as head softball coach at SF State.

"I think that sets us apart," Byrne said of the extra-curricular aspect of the program. "We recruit the type of person we want, not just the athlete we want."

And recruiting is a big part of Byrne's job. She attends tournaments to scout players and keeps careful track of what is going on with other teams. "There are lots of long hours sitting on benches," she said with a laugh.

The program has the equivalent of just two full scholarships to give players. The financial help is split up among many players, allowing more people to have the chance to play.

As the team readies for the season, they have an alumni game on Jan. 28 and a tournament in Turlock the first weekend in February.

Once home games get under way, Coach Byrne's top goal is simple.

"I want to see that competitive enjoyment that brings people out to watch," she said.

Her team says it's ready for that challenge.

"Here I feel like all 22 of us truly want to be here," said junior Sarah Catania, who transferred to SF State last year. "It's not something you come across every team."

"I think this will be the year that we do something big," said Spence.

Click here to view the 2012 softball schedule.

-- Philip Riley