Edinburg Vela senior Monee Montilla signs a letter of intent to play softball for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at Cavazos Sports Institute on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — On top of carrying one of the biggest bats throughout the Rio Grande Valley, Edinburg Vela senior Monee Montilla also has one of the biggest support systems of any student-athlete across the RGV.

Montilla, an elite power-hitting first baseman entering her third season starting for the SaberCats softball squad, signed a national letter of intent to play collegiately for the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders on Friday afternoon at the Cavazos Sports Institute.

She was joined by a large crowd of supporters wearing ‘Monee’ masks that included her Vela coaches, teammates, trainers and extended family, including her grandparents from Puerto Rico via FaceTime who have traveled to Texas annually to support her in person.

“I think that’s the biggest thing that you can have right now. A parent said it best the other day at another signing saying, ‘The bigger your support system, the more successful you’re going to be.’ Yes, that’s true for a lot of people, but I feel like that’s really the epitome of what I’ve been doing,” Montilla said. “I’ve got so many great people who support me and it’s just been insane. I love all of them and I’ve loved every single minute of it. I’m going to thank them for the rest of my life that they were able to drag me to do this and it’s something that they never let me give up on. They kept my head in the game, so that was very important for me.”

Montilla has gained a reputation as one of the RGV’s most prolific power hitters during the past two seasons while also routinely finding a way to get on base.

The SaberCats’ slugger led the team in batting average as a sophomore and was named The Monitor’s Newcomer of the Year in 2019 and finished with the second-highest average at the plate for Vela during its 18-3 run before the season was halted due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During her 52-game career at Vela, Montilla has registered a .510 batting average which led the team during that stretch. She also tallied 62 RBIs, 51 runs scored and a 1.374 career OPS through her sophomore and junior seasons and she’s already on track to pick up an academic all-state distinction during her senior year too.

“The process is my favorite part. You see the games and you see the outcomes, but you don’t get to see what goes on the other days of the week and I think that’s the most important part to do,” she said. “There’s not many boxes left to check other than finishing strong and then do it all over again for four more years. At the end of the day, this opportunity I’ve been given is something that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. It’s going to be so much fun I can’t wait.”

What sets Montilla apart on the diamond, though, is her rare blend of plate discipline and raw power. 

A staggering 41.3% of her 75 career hits have gone for extra bases. At her signing ceremony, Montilla’s trainer Jaime Cavazos called her, “the strongest female athlete I’ve ever worked with.”

At the same time, Montilla has drawn double the combined walks (18) and hit-by-pitches (four) as career strikeouts. In fact, Montilla has only struck out in only 6.4% of her career plate appearances and has yet to strike out looking.

“If I’m ahead in the count, I’m still looking for the pitch she’s constantly been throwing and I want to hit that ball as hard as I can,” she said. “That’s the most important part: knowing what she’s throwing in the circle. If she’s got a low curveball or her changeup is dropping and her fastball is going to rise, stuff like that is really important to take with you to the plate and just knowing that can really give you an edge.

“That’s one step of becoming a power hitter is knowing what she’s going to throw so you’re not so much defensive as offensive.”

Montilla’s signing with the Islanders also signifies another significant milestone for Edinburg Vela’s softball program, which has emerged in recent years as one of the state’s perennial powers at the Class 6A level.

Montilla, now a senior, became the fourth SaberCats’ softball standout to sign to play collegiately in 2020, all of whom inked their national letters of intent since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their season.

She joins several former Vela stars who recently graduated like middle infielder Kameryn Casares, who joined the inaugural recruiting class at Texas A&M-San Antonio, and first baseman and corner outfielder Deandra Longoria who signed with Howard Payne, an NCAA Division III school in Brownwood, Texas.

Montilla also becomes Vela’s second softball star to sign with a Division I program within Texas, joining former Edinburg High and Edinburg Vela outfielder Katy Truitt who signed to play with the North Texas Mean Green.

“There’s a lot that goes into it, but when you’re around a lot of people with the same mindset, that plays a big part,” Montilla said. “Knowing that she wants to go to college and she does and she does, if we put our minds together, we can do that. We feed off each other and give each other tips and tricks, but that’s from stuff we’ve learned and that’s some stuff we can take on with us after playing with these girls who have already committed.”

For Montilla and the SaberCats this coming season, however, the mission is clear: return to the diamond, punch past the Sweet 16 in the Class 6A playoffs and reclaim the mantle as the RGV’s most elite softball squad.

“When we’re going to do something, we set our mind to it and go do it,” Montilla said of her Vela softball family. “We’re going to go hard until our final game and even then a majority of us are going to (play in) college, so after that then it starts all over again and I’m super excited about that.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch