By Dan Arritt     3/10/2016

When the starters for the Mater Dei softball team took the field for their season opener earlier this month, they already claimed at least one impressive bragging right.

All nine players had either signed a letter of intent to play at the college level or verbally committed to their future university.

Yes, the Monarchs were batting .1000 even before stepping in the batter’s box.

If that’s not extraordinary enough, three others on the roster of 20 had also signed or committed to a college program. That’s 60 percent of the defending Trinity League champions earning some degree of financial aid toward college.

“The game of softball is giving these kids such great opportunities to not only play the game they love, but also get the opportunity to get an education,” says head coach Tia Meza, who graduated from Mater Dei in 2000 and played four years at the University of Washington. “The dedication that it takes to be [a scholarship athlete] only makes our program better because kids who want to play at the next level, their dedication to the game is different.”

While many blue-chip athletes on boys’ teams consider a college scholarship a stepping stone to the pros, Meza and her players are well aware that the opportunities to make money playing softball are limited. A college degree can certainly open doors to a variety of other professions, however.

“That’s really their goal,” Meza says of her players. “From when they were little girls, to be able to come together, work hard and get that reward.”

Mater Dei senior catcher Priscilla Martinez, who had a walk-off two-run double to beat Northwood in the season opener March 2, is headed to George Washington University next fall. She hopes to use her education to start a family construction business with her two older brothers.

“I believe Mater Dei sets us up for high standards,” she says. “We always try to succeed, be the best, knowing the confidence is always there.”

Meza says a few unique factors have created the boom in scholarship athletes for the Monarchs this season.

Mater Dei has a larger-than-usual class of seniors on this season’s team. In addition to Martinez, six other seniors have signed or committed to their respective colleges.

College programs are also looking closer at underclassmen for their future needs, identifying those who can likely help them down the line and securing verbal commitments.

Three sophomores are among the dozen Monarchs who have committed to colleges; first baseman/catcher Donna Friedman (Virginia), third baseman Kelli Godin (UCLA) and left fielder Emma Clark (Notre Dame).

Meza, who went by Tia Bollinger when she attended Mater Dei, didn’t commit to Washington until November of her senior year, despite posting a 0.28 ERA with 149 strikeouts in 100 1/3 innings during her junior season.

“The trend of recruiting in college softball has definitely changed,” Meza says. “They’re recruiting three, four years out sometimes, and you’re seeing more kids committing earlier and wanting to make sure they don’t miss out on the opportunities.”

To Meza, it doesn’t matter if it’s a full scholarship or just a partial, the college experience can be priceless.

“To me, if they’re giving $1, the school’s saying, ‘Hey, we see what you’re doing on the field and we want to reward you for the hard work,’” she says.