Fast-pitch softball changed 19-year-old Nessa Esparza’s life.
It kept her away from the drugs and alcohol that surrounded her teenage years. It dulled the ache of a family that was split apart. It gave her confidence as she slammed the ball into the outfield, a power hitter who also played aggressive defense.
So when, as a freshman, she went to the annual Fall Festival put on by UC Santa Cruz’s Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports and discovered there was no fast-pitch softball team, she felt unmoored.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here,’” said Esparza (College Eight ’18, psychology).
To understand what Esparza did next requires a little background.
At age 7, Esparza left a turbulent home life to live with her “Nana,” a quiet woman who introduced her granddaughter to softball, the sport Esparza came to love.
“I was not the fastest one on the team,” Esparza said. “I was the chubby girl but I was a big hitter.”
Esparza’s grandmother drove her young charge to practice and tournaments, pushed her to do well in school, and even ferried her to friends’ events.
“She loved me more than anyone,” Esparza said.
By age 13, Esparza was playing travel ball and later was named captain of her junior varsity team at West Torrance High School, winning an award for the best offensive player. She became known as someone who could make big plays and bat cleanup.
Intent on going to college, Esparza got an offer to play for Utah University but, because there was no scholarship, she turned instead to UC Santa Cruz where the psychology department’s reputation drew her in.
“Growing up, I went through a lot of hardship with my family. I’ve been through a lot,” said Esparza, who hopes to become a clinical psychologist. “It’s good to have someone be there for you and I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I would like to be there for people who can’t cope.”
But it was hard for her to cope with the idea of not having softball in her life.
Esparza, who also plays guitar and does standup comedy, tried rugby, but a hard hit to her head convinced her the sport wasn’t for her.
“I went right back to the dorm and started making fliers on my computer,” said Esparza, who then hopped on her mountain bike and began tacking notices announcing a fast-pitch softball meeting all over campus.
Fifteen women showed up and signed a petition to establish the first women’s competitive fast-pitch softball team at UC Santa Cruz. An earlier softball team had only played in Santa Cruz city league games.
“The people Nessa was hanging out with, all these juniors and seniors, told her, ‘No way in hell are they going to approve this, especially coming from a freshman like you,’” remembered Kevin “Skippy” Givens, UC Santa Cruz’s sports clubs director.
“She just came in as a willful, young freshman and said, ‘This is what I want.’”
It’s what she got.
Esparza wrote a proposal for a women’s fast-pitch softball team, which was approved as part of a UC Santa Cruz push to get more sports club teams on campus. The team is in its first season, competing as part of the National Collegiate Softball Association’s Southern Pacific Region against squads from California State University Fullerton, UC Davis, UCLA, USC, UC Merced, and UC Irvine.
For Esparza, the experience has not only allowed her to play her beloved sport, but it has also given her motivation, she said.
“Since I came here and wanted to start a team and got that done, it’s like, what else can I do?” said Esparza, who added her success also led her to get her “dream job” as a Sammy the Slug mascot on campus. “I definitely feel like I can do what I want.”
Givens said he was impressed with Esparza’s drive and focus.“She had a vision and she worked hard for that. She also has a strong work ethic. It (the team) really wouldn’t have happened without Nessa being in place.”