Team pride carries Lyford softball to success

LYFORD — Playing for the Lyford Lady Bulldogs varsity softball team is a dream for young girls in the small town.

When that dream becomes a reality, they don’t take it for granted.

The dedication the Lady Bulldogs have to the sport has kept the program among the best in the Rio Grande Valley and earned them statewide respect. In 2019, Lyford won its fourth consecutive District 32-3A title and rose to No. 4 in the Texas Girls Coaches Association Class 3A rankings after an undefeated regular season. It reached the third round of the playoffs and was named the sub-6A girls team of the year at the All Valley Sports Awards Banquet.

The Lady Bulldogs felt a longer playoff run was in store for 2020. Coach Joey Rios put together a grueling schedule, and his team handled it better than expected. Lyford was 16-1, with 11 victories over Class 5A and 6A competition and four wins over state-ranked teams when its season was canceled by the UIL due to COVID-19. It was ranked No. 5 in the final TGCA poll of the year, released March 23.

“I had been playing the psyche game with them, telling them, ‘Hey, our schedule is tough … if you want to be respected, you want to play the big dogs, you have to put the work in.’ It was fun to see them respond to it,” Rios said. “They know what’s at stake, being part of a program like this. They respect the game and the magnitude of it. They know what they want to accomplish, and it makes my job a little easier because we have girls that are eager to come out and work.”

Junior shortstop Hannah Garza and sophomore pitcher/outfielder Mia Wetegrove are two girls who grew up watching Lyford softball and have put in the work to become key contributors to the program. Garza, Wetegrove and other girls on the team played select softball together for years in preparation for high school, under the direction of Hannah’s dad and Lyford assistant Albert Garza.

“When I was, like, 8 (years old) I remember going to the games and I was just wowed. That was always my goal, to play for the Lyford Lady Bulldogs, and now that it’s coming true it’s a great feeling,” Hannah Garza said. “It’s a great program and we’re like sisters, and being able to grow up wanting to do this and now being able to do it is just great.”

Wetegrove added: “When I was little, my aunt played when she was in high school and I went to all her games. I’ve always wanted to play on the varsity level, and now that we’ve made it happen it’s like a dream come true.”

Rios is expecting both athletes to fill vacated leadership roles next season. Lyford graduated two starters in pitcher/third baseman Jerrica Rojas, a Prairie View A&M signee, and catcher Jessica Cruz. Rios said departing seniors Leilani Salazar, Allix Cortez and Kayleen May “carried their weight and were still leaders even if they weren’t starters.” Karla Medina didn’t get to play in her final season due to a volleyball injury but still showed up to every practice and game to motivate the squad.

Rojas was the cornerstone for the Lady Bulldogs as a four-year letterwinner. This year, she struck out 66 batters in 43 innings and notched a 0.81 ERA, also hitting .396 with 14 RBIs and three home runs.

Wetegrove called Rojas her role model and credited the ace with improving her confidence and getting her ready to take on the No. 1 spot next season. Wetegrove pitched 44 innings with a 1.43 ERA and 49 strikeouts as Rios aimed to build her mental toughness. She was strong at the plate as well, hitting .400 with 16 RBIs and nine doubles.

Hannah Garza recorded a .500 batting average with 23 hits and scored 18 runs from the two-hole. She’s expecting big things in her final year with the Lady Bulldogs and said she’ll follow the example set by her older teammates to lead Lyford to new heights.

“(The seniors) really impacted me in my life and taught me so many lessons, and it was great learning from them and playing with them,” Garza said. “Learning from them this year, I know I can play this big role, and I’m excited to see where the season takes us because I think we can go far. Being able to lead an awesome team of sisters is just overall great.”

Lyford boasts a strong sophomore class that earned a lot of playing time this season, and Rios said he’s excited to see that group grow throughout the next two years. He called infielder Alyssa Garcia — a two-year letterwinner in volleyball, basketball and softball — an all-around athlete who makes her presence known and a strong young leader. Hailey Pena, who plays right field and second base, and left fielder Mikeala Lopez are two other starters in the solid 2022 class.

“All of us have been playing together since we were, like, 5 years old. It definitely helps having played together for so long,” Wetegrove said. “We’re all really good friends, and we know how each other plays and everyone’s tendencies and how we can better each other. It’s good knowing there’s someone there you can trust all the time.”

Trust is something Rios said is pivotal for the success of his program. He called it a blessing that he was trusted to take the reins after “the great coaches that came before” him and that he’s able to trust the players to hold themselves accountable for the sake of the team.

The Lady Bulldogs appreciate the game even more now that they had such a promising season cut short, and Rios knows they’re doing everything necessary to keep building something they’ve been dreaming about for years.

“Even though we had all those wins, that wasn’t the big part of the success for me. The big part of the success was seeing them take ownership,” Rios said. “The growth over the course of the season was the big success. All that happens between the lines, being able to hit and get strikeouts and double plays and all that, it’s all fun, but when they take ownership and they take pride in our program, that’s the big win.”