Inning after inning, whether amid windy conditions or sunny skies, a night game or an afternoon game, Utah pitcher Mariah Lopez stood in the circle, poised and unfazed, rocking back and firing softballs across the plate.
“It was clear, right out of the gates, that she’s talented enough. Mariah probably had the biggest ceiling of any pitcher I’ve ever recruited.” Utah coach Amy Hogue
During last weekend’s Super Regional at Dumke Stadium against San Diego State, in front of raucous, record-breaking crowds, Lopez ended up throwing a staggering 317 pitches in the Utes’ series victory, propelling them to their first Women’s College World Series appearance in 29 years.
No. 15th-seeded Utah opens up WCWS play against No. 7 Washington Thursday (7:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
After Sunday’s series-clinching 7-2 victory over the Aztecs, Lopez described what drives her to push through and demonstrate endurance.
“When my number is called, I want the ball whenever. If that is what the team needs then I am going to be there for them,” she said. “I want to play. I want to be the one to take my team there. Obviously, we are getting the rest we need, but it is more mental and wanting it more than the other team.”
This season, Lopez has posted a 23-6 record, having pitched 191.2 innings and recorded 201 strikeouts. She owns an ERA of 2.15.
But it’s been a process for the 5-foot-9 junior from Peoria, Arizona, to arrive at this point of her career.
Coach Amy Hogue remembers recruiting Lopez a few years ago and viewing her as a diamond in the rough.
“It was clear, right out of the gates, that she’s talented enough. Mariah probably had the biggest ceiling of any pitcher I’ve ever recruited,” Hogue said. “One of the things about reaching that ceiling was her ability to believe that she’s as good as we know she is. She needs to know that and believe that.
“That took longer than I wanted it to. I thought she’d turn the corner on that sooner. She’s there. All the things that needed to be, physically a step better, have gotten better, and then the confidence piece was the last piece that was needed. It’s been fun to watch her progress.”
Lopez has evolved during her time at Utah, according to infielder Aliya Belarde.
“It’s been really fun to watch her grow up a little bit,” she said. “She came in and she was really shy. I’ve seen her grow so much as a player and a person. Now, she’s blossoming into this confident young woman.”
Hogue gives plenty of credit to pitching coach Paige Parker, who has been on the staff from 2021. Parker was a two-time national champion pitcher at Oklahoma.
“Paige Parker has developed some of her pitches to a ‘T,’” Hogue said. “She’s got her rise ball more in the zone. Her speeds have gotten up. Her curveball has gotten more down in the zone, which has complemented her rise.”
Lopez appreciates Parker’s help during her time in Salt Lake City.
“Me and coach Paige worked a lot in the fall on some things I needed to clean up,” she said. “She’s the one who does it all. This is our second year working together and it’s really been working well for us.”
‘Don’t take me out!’
During a losing streak earlier this season, Hogue witnessed Lopez’s transformation. With her team trailing, Hogue strode to the circle and told Lopez she was going to make a pitching change.
“No! No! Don’t take me out!” Lopez implored. “I’m good enough. I’ve faltered but I want to be given the chance to stay.”
That response carried a lot of weight for Hogue. “I thought, ‘She’s arrived,’” Hogue recalled later.
Hogue still took Lopez out of the game “but I knew at that point that we were in a new space that I hadn’t seen with her that just says, ‘Give me the ball. I believe in myself.’ And she hasn’t looked back,” Hogue said. “It was such a testament to the mental side of the game. For these women that have all the talent in the world but they need the ‘X’ factor.”
Belarde remembered that moment when Lopez begged her coach to leave her in the game.
“We didn’t want her to come out, either. We wanted that win for her. We had her back the whole entire game and we wanted to see her finish it,” she said. “She had so much confidence in herself and each other that we were going to get this done. She wanted to be the one to do it.”
Hogue is gratified to see Lopez’s development.
“It’s a piece some have at a young age and some hopefully grow into as they gain the confidence or are around a group of people that help build them up,” she said. “The combination of her teammates, who she absolutely adores and plays her guts out for, she’s finally starting to trust them when they say that’s how good you are, believe it.
“I’m pretty sure they were a huge contributing factor for her. Now she’s got the talent and the belief in herself. My job is to write her name on the lineup and hand her the ball. Paige Parker calls the pitches for her and has a great game plan put together. Then I help set a defense to make sure they’re in the right spots so if they do hit it, we’re standing right where it’s going to go.”
Before Sunday, Utah hadn’t reached the Women’s College World Series since 1994. Lopez played a key role in helping the Utes get there with big victories in the Pac-12 tournament, the NCAA Regionals and the Super Regionals.
Utah fell 4-3 in Game 1 of the Super Regionals to SDSU last Friday, but it could have been much worse. In two innings, Lopez pitched out of bases-loaded jams with two-out strikeouts.
Aztec coach Stacey Nuveman Deniz knew her team would be facing Lopez again Saturday.
“We have seen Moriah Lopez and no disrespect to the rest of their staff, but I will bet my mortgage she is in the circle tomorrow,” she said. “With their season on the line, that is who we will see. Now, if we get to her, then that’s a different story.
“If we get to her, then I like our chances. She is their ace and her innings numbers prove that so there’s no mystery there. We know she is their go-to. To her credit, she’s done a phenomenal job of continuing to be successful even though we have seen her a number of times.”
Lopez was dominant Saturday as the Utes bounced back with a 10-1 victory. She came up huge again in the series-clinching win Sunday. In the third inning, she struck out the side. In the fifth inning, the Aztecs loaded the bases with Utah up 4-2 when Lopez struck out SDSU star AJ Murphy.
After the game Nuveman Deniz was impressed, again, and heaped praise on Lopez.
“I am going to give it up to Mariah Lopez. She was unbelievable,” she said. “I don’t know what her pitch total was this weekend — somewhere in the 300s — and that is sort of a throwback to this generation. I don’t know her, but I am proud of her. She battled her butt off and carried her team to (the Women’s College World Series) so congrats to them.”
Old school pitcher
In the past, teams would ride one ace throughout the season whereas now, it’s more common for teams to depend on two or three different pitchers.
Lopez is a throwback to a bygone era of softball.
Asked about being an “old school” pitcher, Lopez wasn’t sure what that meant until it was explained to her.
How has Lopez been able to be so durable and clutch throughout the grind of a long season?
“Just building endurance the whole season has been important. There are some days where some parts of my body are more tired,” Lopez said. “Coach Paige will give me cues like, push harder with your legs or speed up your hand. Just focusing on that side of things.”
Having the trust of her teammates has been important, too.
“We give her a lot of confidence,” Belarde said. “We’re always trying to uplift her and make her feel the best that she can. That’s helped her a lot to grow into this amazing athlete.”
Utah infielder Ellessa Bonstrom has known Lopez for a long time, having played on the same club team in Arizona before they arrived at Utah.
“You can tell that she’s maturing year to year. With that, she gets more confident. It’s so cool to see her from my point of view,” she said. “I grew up with her and played club ball with her. Seeing her just become the person and the player that she is, it’s so cool to see. I’m so proud of the success she’s had so far. She’s the same person that she was.”
Lopez is the same person but now she’s more confident and she’s etched some impressive accomplishments on her resume, including the Women’s College World Series berth.
“Mariah’s been taking the lead, for sure. And she’s just getting stronger. She always had the talent but her confidence is growing,” Hogue said. “She’s always had the confidence in her teammates and now she’s starting to gain some confidence in herself. We’re seeing double-digit strikeout numbers, which is just phenomenal. She feels great and she’ll get the ball a lot.”
And so Lopez is expected to be pitching for Utah, inning after inning, standing in the circle, rocking back and firing softballs across the plate in the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.