Mater Dei softball coach Tia Meza still keeps her cards close to the vest.
With two pivotal Trinity League games on the schedule this week against Santa Margarita and Orange Lutheran, Meza wouldn’t disclose her pitching plans, sort of how she kept batters guessing when she was the best high school hurler in the nation 15 years ago.
Gabby Sandoval had Mater Dei’s only varsity pitching experience coming into this season, while fellow junior right-hander Lauren Persi posted better numbers during the nonleague portion of the schedule.
“They’re both doing really well for us,” she says. “We need both pitchers, so it’s definitely a two-man show.”
Meza faced nearly the same situation last season, except Amanda Kahn and Alex Formby were a grade older than Sandoval and Perci. Kahn ended up starting 14 games, Formby 10 and Sandoval four. Combined, they led the Monarchs to a 19-10 record, including 4-4 in the Trinity League.
Kahn now pitches for Florida Tech and Formby for the University of Virginia, along with her twin sister, Andie, who may have been the best pitcher for the Monarchs last season but was unable to handle those duties because of a shoulder injury.
Meza’s knack for developing and handling pitchers comes naturally. After all, she went 30-2 with a 0.03 ERA during her senior year at Mater Dei in 2000, earning Gatorade National Softball Player of the Year honors, the first athlete in school history to win the prestigious award.
Playing under her maiden name, Tia Bollinger, she also spent a year on the U.S. National team and four at the University of Washington, where she remains one of the school’s all-time leaders in several pitching categories.
She was the head softball coach at JSerra from 2008-10, spent two seasons as an assistant at Cal State Northridge and then returned to the high school ranks in 2013. In her first season at Mater Dei, she guided the Monarchs to a 22-5 record and a Trinity League title.
Meza says a lot has changed between her time as a player and coach at Mater Dei, mainly the distance between the pitching rubber and home plate. Beginning with the 2010-11 season, the rubber was moved back 36 inches to 43 feet, giving hitters more of an advantage against pitchers, especially the elite ones like Meza.
“It really changed the game,” she says.
Because of the longer distance, pitching to contact has become more common. Persi, especially, has become especially adept at getting outs off mishit balls.
In a game against La Serna of Whittier last week, Sandoval was tagged for six runs through the first four innings, but Persi came on for a rare relief appearance and blanked La Serna for the final 2 2/3 innings in the 6-0 loss, getting most of the outs on infield grounders.
“Lauren has been doing a really good job,” Meza says after the La Serna game. “It was nice to see her come in relief and do well.”
Meza says she’s also been impressed by senior catcher Morganne Flores, who has helped guide Sandoval and Persi as they’ve taken on key roles. Flores might be a catcher, but she’s following in Meza’s footsteps by signing with the University of Washington.
“I’ve been impressed with her leadership skills, but also offensively,” Meza says of Flores. “She’s always been a cornerstone for us.”