BY TJ GARCIA | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR

McALLEN — Former Mercedes Tigers softball star Dalilah Barrera began the 2019 season as Texas State’s starting pitcher and promptly shut out Colorado State — an NCAA Division I Mountain West team that finished the year 39-12.

Barrera didn’t stop there. She shot out of the gates 5-0 with wins over major programs such as San Jose State, West Virginia and the University of South Florida. In her first season in the NCAA Div. I Sun Belt Conference, a year after leading Temple College to the NJCAA World Series championship in 2018, Barrera compiled an impressive 9-6 record.

“My No. 1 goal was to play collegiate ball at the Div. I level, and I knew it was going to be a challenge in order to reach that goal,” said Barrera, a first team NJCAA All-American last year at Temple. “College ball isn’t for everyone, and it doesn’t come easy. You have to work and prove yourself every day.”

More and more, Barrera’s performance illustrates the rising tide of Valley athletes succeeding with regularity on the diamond at the NCAA Div. I, II, III, NAIA and junior college levels. Winning, making all-conference teams and even picking up All-American nods are not anomalies for RGV softball players. They are also receiving scholarships and some are receiving an education when, due to financial or other constraints, it might not otherwise be possible.

In May, The Monitor reviewed more than 75 college softball rosters across Texas. For the 2019 season, about 50 young women from the RGV, like Barrera, played college softball in Texas, while even more are scattered on teams outside the state. Scores of them have earned all-conference and all-region accolades.

TRAINING, RECRUITING KEY FOR RGV PLAYERS

Valley players and coaches point to several reasons for the surge in successes. Some say a big factor is club teams that keep girls playing and training year round, while others point to college softball’s rise in popularity. It can now be frequently seen on conference networks and on social media platforms 24/7. Still, others believe the talent in the Valley is as good as anywhere else in the state. It’s just a matter of getting exposure and making contact with recruiters, they say, which Valley players are now doing more often.

“The Valley has so much talent and everyone has an awesome work ethic,” said Sharyland alum Roxy Chapa, who led the Texas A&M-Kingsville Javelinas to the NCAA Div. II championship this year as a senior, batting .376 with 14 home runs. “Not too many (college) coaches go down to see people play so most of our exposure is when we travel north and play in tournaments. We know we have to play our best at all times since we might not have many opportunities to play in front of college coaches.”

The trend is not entirely new. Valley girls have moved on to play college softball for years, but in the past five years, RGV power programs such as San Benito, Edinburg North, Rio Hondo, Mercedes, Weslaco, Sharyland, Edinburg Vela, Edinburg and others are populating college rosters at an impressive pace. In many cases, RGV players are playing big roles, not simply riding the bench.

Chapa was named All-American her freshman year in 2016. Crystal Castillo, the SWAC 2019 Conference Pitcher of the Year at Div. I Prairie View A&M University, said improved personal training, coaching and practicing have also led to new opportunities for area softballers.

“Us Valley athletes are not any different from the others around the world,” said Castillo, a San Benito product. “You just have to be hungry and want to better yourself. The RGV has always had talented softball players. It has been a pleasure to watch how all us Valley athletes have really developed and helped lead our programs to success.”

RGV SOFTBALL PLAYERS THROUGHOUT TEXAS

Texas State, Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern are Div. I schools with multiple Valley players. Joining Barrera in the highest ranks is Castillo, a junior, who for the second straight year earned first team all-conference honors. She was 13-5 with a 2.35 ERA. Former Edinburg Vela star Naomi Reyes went 13-8 with a 2.14 ERA as a freshman for Texas Southern, also in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

And the success is not just on the Div. I level. Freshman Alyssa Escamilla (Weslaco High) and sophomore Daisy Gonzalez (McAllen Memorial) led Temple College to its second straight JUCO World Series. Chapa’s Texas A&M-Kingsville’s teammate freshman Amber Reyes (Edinburg High) excelled, as did Huston-Tillotson University’s Taylor Tafolla (Weslaco High), who was named first team all-conference at the NAIA school as was her teammate Amanda Aguilera, a senior from PSJA High.

For the 2019 season, there were at least eight RGV players on Div. I softball rosters at Texas State, Texas Southern and Prairie View. On the Div. II level, there were four at TAMUK, Texas A&M International (Laredo) and St. Edward’s, and four more at the Div. III level at Concordia (Austin), Howard Payne and Sul Ross State in Alpine.

At the NAIA level, which is similar to NCAA Div. III, there were 18 at Huston-Tillotson, Jarvis Christian, UH-Victoria and Texas College. Huston-Tillotson, which is coached by Valley native Roxanne Rodriguez, carried eight RGV players on its roster, meanwhile, Jarvis Christian had seven. In the JUCO ranks, Laredo Community College had five RGV natives on its team led by McAllen Rowe’s Christina Garcia. Others competed at Ranger, Coastal Bend, Temple, Blinn and more two-year schools.

RGV SOFTBALL BEGAN IN 1992-93, TRAVEL TEAMS FOLLOWED

Softball became a state UIL sport during the 1992-93 school year. In Texas, it began with just one classification: 5A. That spring, Brownsville Hanna and Weslaco high secured playoffs spots coming out of District 32-5A, according to the UIL. The following year, the UIL added Class 3A for small schools, and then in 1995-96 Class 4A began and Mercedes and Sharyland High were tops in District 32-4A and made it to the area round.

With more schools starting softball, travel teams invariably followed. Today, there are multiple teams going strong in the RGV, cross-pollinated by girls from different schools. RGV Heat, RGV Thunder, South Texas Kaos and several others play months worth of tournaments here and around Texas and the country. That keeps girls on the field and in the batting cage, improving and gaining instruction.

“I believe the coaches we have at home play a huge part in so many people that come for the Valley flourishing at the next level,” Chapa said. “All of my high school and travel ball coaches have always pushed me to do my best and believed in me. They never let me settle for mediocrity.”

MORE PLAYERS AND MOTIVATION

It doesn’t stop there. More players are being produced. For example, this fall Edinburg Vela is sending outfielder Julia Cardone to the University of the Incarnate Word, shortstop Taylor Chavez to Prairie View A&M, and catcher Darissa Buenrostro to Div. II Newman University in Kansas.

The discovery of — ultimately, the success of — RGV players at colleges and universities in Texas and around the country can mean more than just glory on the diamond. The opportunity to play collegiate softball also means getting onto campuses that are institutions of higher learning. Translation: players are getting an education, and for many it’s on scholarship.

Gabrielle Fonseca, a junior shortstop at Prairie View A&M from PSJA High, said that the Valley support system of coaches and advisers can be very helpful. However, a player still has to have goals and be driven. Getting a college degree was key for her playing college ball.

“Education plays a huge role in all of this because we all don’t come from a family where they all went to college and are successful,” Fonseca said. “We come from lower middle-income families that worked hard to get us to where we are now. Some of us are first-generation graduates (high school) softball was a part of getting us to the finish line.”

A DOZEN DESERVING NOTICE

Amanda Aguilera, Huston-Tillotson, Sr., P, PSJA Memorial; Dalilah Barrera, Texas State, Jr., P, Mercedes; Crystal Castillo, Prairie View A&M, Jr., P, San Benito; Roxy Chapa, Texas A&M-Kingsville, Sr., C, Sharyland,; Alyssa Escamilla, Temple College, Fr., SS, Weslaco; Gabrielle Fonseca, Prairie View A&M, So., SS, PSJA; Christina Garcia, Laredo College, So., OF, McAllen Rowe; Daisy Gonzalez, Temple College, So., 1B, McAllen Memorial; Amber Reyes, Texas A&M-Kingsville, Fr., OF, Edinburg; Naomi Reyes, Texas Southern, Fr., P, Edinburg Vela; Allyson Rodriguez, Ranger College, So., UT, Edcouch-Elsa; Taylor Tafolla, Huston-Tillotson, So., 1B, Weslaco,