The road to an elite college athlete

Softball Gauchos display their talent with a backstory 

Pitcher Mckenna Walton winding up for a strike. (Andrea Clemett/ Lariat)

Pitcher Mckenna Walton winding up for a strike. (Andrea Clemett/Lariat)

Saddleback College Gaucho’s softball team has an extended season beyond the 10 games played this season, seen when they mercied Golden West College last month. Many rookies who have achieved college level ball, stated that their athleticism and training begun as early as six years of age and progressed to competing year-round by age thirteen.

Numerous athletes have played on travel ball teams that have been in existence for over 35 years. These costly, premium teams are a cut above Little League or recreational softball sport teams and have exploded in recent years. The teams were comprised of paid managers with a background in professional minor league ball or full-time parents. The teams encompassed a higher range of abilities and competed in local, regional and national tournaments. The underlying goal was being seen and scouted for future endeavors.

Gauchos head coach Nick Trani formed his team by scouting athletes who are coachable. He moved players around in order to showcase their best strengths, in spite of each player’s personal preferences.  

With repetition and practice, players developed habits and acquired proper techniques as exemplified by the player Trani recruited this season from the water polo squad. The team trains for three hours a day, five days a week.

Saddleback’s first base and catcher, Kacie Tatman, has played softball for fifteen years and travel ball for six years. Participating in both high school softball and travel ball she played year-round, since teams competed in alternating seasons. High school had a mandatory quota for grades which promoted consistency in academics. Balancing academics and participation in travel ball tournaments was critical, since most were scouted at this level.

“The first thing college coaches look for most in a player is a good attitude and leadership,” said Kacie Tatman, a 21-year-old kinesiology major. “A player always has to pick up their teammates when they are feeling down. Practicing every day is key and private coaching is always a good idea.”

Haliegh Wikerson displaying precise batting form for a singled hit. (Andrea Clemett/ Lariat)

Haliegh Wikerson displaying precise batting form for a singled hit. (Andrea Clemett/ Lariat)

Other players like Hailey Rose are second generation ball players. As catcher, she began playing with her father at six years of age. Then at fifteen, her father started a travel ball team that he managed for three years. Additionally, he worked with her one-on-one in the off seasons to maintain consistency. Training also included body and foot positioning, as well as increasing running stamina.

“College coaches have expectations where a standard is set, whereas travel softball is intense because we were still learning,” said Mckenna Walton, the Gauchos’ 19-year-old pitcher.

After playing for El Medina High School in Orange and six years of travel softball, Walton accepted the opportunity to play outside of her community and joined Mission Viejo. Although still close to home, she has achieved an increase in her performance by exposing herself to a brand-new team. She indicated that specialized training once a week is required in order to ensure proper pitching techniques.

“The level of competition is fierce in travel ball before college, because there are so many teams popping up, it can be hard to find a promising team since the intense teams can be watered down,” Walton said.

Each athlete’s path is unique in its own way. All players sustain a level of professionalism when pursuing the dream of playing at a college level at Saddleback and potentially acquiring a scholarship to a 4-year university.