When the 2020 softball season was canceled by COVID-19, senior third baseman Malia Martinez wouldn’t accept that her Arizona softball career was over. There’s no way it could end like that, she thought.
Alyssa Denham wasn’t so confident.
“Malia was probably the one that was the most positive-thinking one out of all of us,” the senior pitcher said. “I thought that it was probably done because I didn’t know that they could even give us another year.”
Weeks later, the NCAA did just that, voting to grant all spring student-athletes an extra year of eligibility to make up for the lost season.
The question then was not if Arizona’s seniors could return, but would they return? And how many of them? All six had their own decisions to weigh.
Martinez, again, hoped for the best.
“I would be understanding (if they didn’t come back) but at the same time I was like, ‘no, selfishly I want everyone to come back,’” she said. “I was just really happy to see that everyone is on board.”
Yes, all six star seniors will be back in 2021, and interestingly it was Martinez who was thought to be the least likely to return. Or at least the one with the most to think about.
She was accepted into a Doctor of Physical Therapy program at NAU and was planning to enroll there this fall. She hopes to be a sports therapist one day.
“Or maybe work in a hospital,” she said. “I’m not sure yet, but I was just kind of hoping I would figure that out along the way.”
Denham was the other big question mark. She was lined up to be a school teacher—and coach—in the Houston area, excited about the opportunity to live near her family again.
Her decision to return for a fifth college season basically came down to this: She can work for the rest of her life, but she can only play softball for so long, so she better make the most of it.
“In a way it was difficult because I’m very close with my family and when I went to Arizona, I was only planning to go for three years,” said Denham, who transferred in as a sophomore. “Another year of being away from my family is really hard, but I know they’re going to be coming out there as much as they can. But hopefully I get the opportunity to come home in the fall too. But besides that, I definitely knew that I wasn’t going to finish (my career) under those circumstances.”
Same for Martinez, who is now trying to delay her enrollment at NAU another year.
“I can apply to PT school a couple more times even if this doesn’t work out,” she said. “But at the end of the day, if this is my last opportunity to play softball, I definitely didn’t want to pass that up.”
Some details still have to be ironed out, like picking a graduate program. Student-athletes must be enrolled in 12 units to stay eligible.
At this point, Martinez and Denham are open to anything.
“I know one of the possibilities is a certificate doctorate program,” Martinez said. “It’s like a couple units and an internship.”
The important thing is that they will have a chance to wear red and blue again, to make memories with their teammates again. Maybe even win a national championship.
With the seniors set to return and the No. 1 recruiting class on its way in, the Wildcats are expected to be one of the favorites in 2021, just as they were in 2020 when they were the No. 4 team in the country before the season was wiped out.
“I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun,” Denham said. “I think we’re gonna have even more depth than we had last year. I think that’s going to be really exciting and I’m kind of looking forward to playing with the younger girls and helping them translate into their college career.”
When asked what kind of advice she plans to impart on the freshmen, Denham said she wants them to understand the importance of setting goals for themselves. Even if they’re small.
“That way you’re working towards something every single day and you’re not just showing up and going through the motions,” she said.
Denham is maintaining that mentality during this national quarantine. She has a backstop at her home in Texas, allowing her to throw regularly. Her father sits behind the fence and gives her a target to hit.
Among other things, Denham is using the offseason to hone her command. The right-hander was throwing harder than ever in 2020, regularly clocking in in the upper 60s, but also had, as she put it, “a little bit of control issues.”
“That kind of comes with having more velocity,” she explained.
Denham issued 25 walks and hit 10 batters in 80.1 innings, the reason her ERA (1.92) hardly improved from the year before even though she held batters to a career-best .171 average.
“It’s kind of something that you have to figure out and go with,” she said. “So I’m excited that I have this year because now I can have some time to figure everything out.”
Martinez described her 2020 season as “okay” even though she hit .333 with three homers, 21 RBI, and several clutch hits, including the game-winning three-run homer at Alabama.
The parks around her hometown of Poway, California are closed, so she’s been training in parking lots, throwing and taking swings into a net.
As far as she can remember, this is the first April she has ever spent away from the softball diamond. Being away from the game has allowed her to spend quality time with her family, reflect on the shortened season, and focus on her future.
Thankfully, softball is still a part of it.
“I think I struggled a good chunk of the time (this season), but I was definitely starting to do better at the end, so I was sad to see that it just ended like that,” Martinez said. “But it definitely just means I want to work even harder next year especially now that this is all a really-have-to-make-it-worth-it type of thing. I want to make this the absolute best season for me and for my team.”