When junior third baseman Malia Martinez entered the starting lineup last season, she was stepping into the spot of a legend.
Arizona’s career home-run leader, Katiyana Mauga, had just completed a historic career that left her only three home runs shy of the NCAA softball career record.
“I learned a lot from Kati,” Martinez said Monday. “She helped me a lot with the mental side of college softball.”
The year spent learning from one of the best is one reason Martinez is so successful now, according to Arizona coach Mike Candrea and some of her teammates.
“Malia has finally grown into the confidence in herself and been the player that she was,” said fellow infielder Jessie Harper. “She learned a lot from Kati her freshman year, just shadowing her. And then her sophomore year, she came out here and that was her first year where she really made a mark, but then this year, I think it’s been her year. Not only has she been hitting way better, but her fielding is lights out.”
Confidence is definitely a an important change, but there is something else that Candrea, Harper, and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza all mentioned when asked about Martinez: maturity. That maturity—both physical and emotional—combined with effort have made the biggest difference between this year and last, according to the coach.
“I think most of it is just maturity, but I think she’s really kind of found her niche offensively,” Candrea said. “She’s been able to hit good pitches and put good swings on it. She doesn’t chase as much as she used to. She makes pretty good adjustments and I kind of sum all that back to the maturity level. She’s had an opportunity to kind of grow into that position.
“I thought it was a good thing for her to be able to watch someone like Kati,” Candrea said. “Two different players. Kati, when she got here, it was all offense. That’s why we recruited her. And she was a good defensive player, but offensively, she was solid.”
Martinez, on the other hand, needed to improve offensively—and not because she didn’t have the skills.
“Basically, when we got her here, she was a much better defensive player than she was an offensive player, but she’s worked really hard,” Candrea said. “And I think she’s now kind of getting some confidence in swinging the bat. She’s got great bat speed. She used to chase a lot. She used to pull a lot. Now she stays inside the ball and really does a good job. With the off speed pitch. It’s a ball the opposite field. Well, I think its maturity. You know, I think it’s that database that young players have to go through to finally figure it out.”
Martinez is hitting .335 this season with 14 home runs and 57 RBI, including 8 for 18 with a homer and five RBI in the postseason. In her first two years at Arizona she hit a combined .262 with four homers and 29 RBI.
As solid as she was on defense, Martinez faced a challenge in that part of the game, too. Arizona had shortstops to replace Mo Mercado. They needed someone to replace Mauga at third base.
She developed her skills there, just as she did on offense.
“When I recruited Malia,” Candrea said, “Malia was a shortstop in travel ball, and she was a lot smaller. And that’s the tough part about recruiting young kids is you don’t know what they’re going to look like now. These kids have grown up to be mature women, and for some of them, it’s kind of helped their game because they’re stronger and more physical. I think Malia’s one of those. But I think the key to Malia is just her hard work. Great attitude. Great teammate. Everything that you’d want, so it’s kind of fun to see her putting it all together for us.”
She’s everything you’d want in a roommate, too.
“We’ve been roommates since I got here my freshman year,” Harper said. “We lived in the dorm together, and then now we live together in a two-bedroom condo.”
The same work ethic that their coach praises Martinez for on the field, her roommate sees at home.
“Malia is dedicated to school,” Harper said. “She’s the most hard-worker I’ve ever met. When we’re at home, she’s always studying, doing homework. She’s amazing. She’s the best roommate that you could possibly have. She’s so easy-going and nice. She’s the cleanest person I’ve ever met. But, yeah, we have a really good relationship and we work well together.”
Their ability to work together is as strong on the field as it is off. Strong communication helps with the ability to recognize what is happening on the field, and know how they are going to attack it.
“It’s definitely that open communication that we have that I think builds everyone’s confidence on the field,” Harper said.
Taylor McQuillin, Martinez’s road roommate, agrees, although she says that establishing that relationship can take time. McQuillin has bunked with Martinez during road trips for the past two years.
“When she first came here for her official visit, I was her host for the weekend,” McQuillin said. “And I just remember trying to talk to her, trying to get words out of her, and it was like pulling teeth just trying to get her to talk. She was super shy, very reserved.And, now, I think she’s grown a lot more. She still is that shy personality, but now she’s a lot more interactive, communicates a lot.
“This is my second year that I’ve had her as my roommate on the road. We got to choose our roommates this year, and so I was fortunate that she wanted to be mine because I chose her. She’s awesome. When she knows people, she’s a lot more comfortable. But on the field, she’s that competitive, smiley character that you always see. I don’t think you ever see her without a smile on her face. Even hitting, she’ll swing and there’s still a smile on her face in every picture. But she wants to win. She’s really motivated, and she’s going to get it done.”
For her perspective, Martinez believes that her improvement on the field is a combination of things: maturing, coaching, and learning from her peers.
“Just definitely maturing throughout my college career and having the tools that we have—great coaches, and I’m among incredible hitters—so you learn from them every single day.” she said about her improvements this season. “We have Ray (Camacho), who pitches to us and actually gives us the full experience. It’s having all the tools and making adjustments.
“I have my roommate, Jessie Harper. She’s obviously the home run queen. She is amazing. But, really, just everyone. My hitting partner for pregame is Dejah (Mulipola). She is just such an amazing hitter and a player, and I look up to her so much. So, I get one-on-one personal time with her every day, so it’s really, really nice.”
Her intelligence, commitment, and maturity have all lead to one thing.
“If I had to give an award to the most improved player this year, it would be Malia Martinez,” Candrea said. “I think she’s just finally matured from the young lady that I recruited.”