By JASON ELMQUIST
STILLWATER — Oklahoma State sophomore Gessenia DeLaCruz came into the Cowgirl softball program a year ago with the likelihood of sitting a year behind four-year starter Chelsea Garcia at the shortstop position.
But with the Cowgirls in need of a third baseman, DeLaCruz made the move from her natural position to the hot corner — a great way to be introduced to the Division I level. While she started in all 51 games as a freshman, she struggled offensively, hitting .140 with just 16 hits for the season.
OSU coach Rich Wieligman is quick to attribute the pressure of playing the new position to the struggles DeLaCruz had at the plate in her freshman season in Stillwater.
“Yes, she struggled offensively, but I attest that to her defensive change. She’d never played third base in her life and at the D-I level, the highest level of softball, we ask her to play third base,” Wieligman said. “I think that took a toll on her offensively because she was so worried about playing third base and it just took much of her energy to play third base with all those responsibilities.”
DeLaCruz admitted it may have played a part to her slow start in the Cowgirl program, but said it was more about making the jump to the college level.
“Last year, my mental approach wasn’t as where it needed to be,” DeLaCruz said. “... There were a lot of nerves coming in not knowing what to expect and just getting thrown in there from the start.”
As Wieligman tells his freshmen every year that “the next year is always easier” DeLaCruz can attest to the wisdom of her coach. In OSU’s fall slate, which wrapped up Sunday with a doubleheader against Tulsa, DeLaCruz found a groove at the plate — while getting back to her natural position at shortstop.
In the eight fall games, DeLaCruz got her batting average up over .220 and hit a team-leading three home runs. She also helped the offense get going, tallying 12 RBIs as OSU outscored its opponents 75-13.
“It feels really good,” DeLaCruz said. “... It was a big relief. I’m really excited about this next season now.”
For Wieligman, it was a pleasure to see DeLaCruz back in her natural setting — and her getting the bat going for an offense that struggled as a whole last season as the Cowgirls were outscored by 21 runs.
“When you add another bat to the lineup, with the things she’s done this fall already, it just makes us go that much deeper into the lineup,” the OSU coach said. “When we can get people driving the runs in toward the middle to bottom of the order, we’re just that more explosive. And that’s big. So I look forward to her to keep improving, to keep working through the fall and getting even better for the spring.”
Having DeLaCruz shift over to the shortstop position, the Cowgirl defense shouldn’t see much of a drop up the middle with the departure of Garcia — with DeLaCruz joining second-year starter at second base, Ari Morrison.
“One of the strengths overall this fall was our defense. I think we fielded over .990 for the fall,” Wieligman said. “... We’ll be tested more in the spring, but I like the fact that up the middle we’re still strong. I think any good team you look up the middle from catcher to short and second to center field; I think you have to have a strong middle. And I think we’ve got that.”
Helping the Houston native prepare for her second season in Stillwater was getting to work alongside Garcia last year, which included several practices in which Garcia and DeLaCruz would switch places.
“We worked a lot together during practice,” DeLaCruz said. “... There were some things that I had never worked on before or ever thought about changing with the way I used to do things that I learned from her.”
— Jason Elmquist is sports editor of The Stillwater NewsPress.