By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (May 12, 2015) — Julie Mata was in a locker room celebrating with her basketball teammates after winning a national semifinal game when she first used the line.
Last Sunday, in her 19th season as the only softball coach Tarleton State has ever known, she used it again.
“I told the girls, ‘You’ve gone farther than any TexAnn team ever has,”’ says Mata as she reenacts a segment of her post game speech after the TexAnns defeated Cameron last Sunday to secure their first ever South Central Region I championship.
She didn’t realize it at the moment, but later she did. So she went to the film.
“I looked back at the highlight video, and in the locker room after winning in the semifinal game to make it to the national championship game, that’s exactly what I said,” Mata explains. “I was the point guard and I was usually the quiet one on the team, but we were celebrating after that game and I said, ‘You’ve gone farther than any TexAnn team ever has.’”
Indeed. Tarleton is two wins from the Division II World Series. The TexAnns face St. Mary’s at 5 p.m. Friday in the first game of a best-of-three series. Game two is set for noon Saturday, with game three, if needed, to follow at about 2:30 p.m.
St. Mary’s has defeated Tarleton twice this season – 10-4 and 6-2 on February 20 and 21 during an invitational hosted by the Lady Rattlers at The Park at St. Mary’s, where the teams meet again this weekend.
But for Mata, the super regional isn’t about avenging those losses. In fact, it’s not about focusing on the opponent at all. It’s about her team, that has improved as the season has come along and is playing their best ball at the right time.
The TexAnns have won nine of 10 games leading to the super regional. That includes a 2-1 upset of reigning national champ West Texas A&M to begin last weekend’s regional tournament, and victories of 8-4 and 11-3 over Cameron to finish it.
“I remember leaving the field when we played in their invitational at St. Mary’s early this year, and that was really our one week of just bad softball,” says Mata. “But we’re not the same team now. We’re playing great, the girls are having fun, and we’re ready to go down there and give them our best shot. We’re focused on us, not them, and doing the things we need to be successful.”
MATA COMES TO TARLETON
To understand what Julie Mata means to Tarleton softball, and to Tarleton athletics in general, you have to go back to her playing days. And they weren’t spent on a softball diamond.
“When I came to Tarleton it was to play basketball. We didn’t have a softball team,” said Mata. I actually moved to Stephenville because my dad came to play fast pitch. He played for a team that always came to Stephenville for a men’s major fast-pitch tournament, and the local team wanted him to come here. So we moved here, and I was a dugout kid. I grew up in the dugout learning the game.”
So Mata played basketball, and played it well. So well, in fact that the 1991-92 TexAnns are enshrined in the Tarleton Athletic Hall of Fame. They fell in the national championship that year, and it remains the deepest playoff run by Tarleton women in any team sport.
Mata stuck around Tarleton and Stephenville, and in 1997, when the Lone Star Conference began to officially sponsor the sport, she started the TexAnn softball team. She’s the only coach the program has ever known, and it didn’t take long for her and the TexAnns to establish success.
Tarleton won three consecutive LSC South Division titles from 1998-2000, and have reached four regional tournaments. Mata especially likes to recall the 2003 season and South Central Regional.
“I have so many memories of that tournament. First of all eight teams from the region all met for one tournament then, so it was like combining last weekend and this weekend,” she explained. “We won the first game and lost the second game, and that actually made for a more brutal schedule than if we had lost the first game. We played the last game of the night then we were in the first game the next morning.”
Mata has photos on an office wall of Carla Geeslin and Brynn Kamenicky, her battery from those days that came to Tarleton together after being teammates in select ball.
“I remember my son (Gabe) being a little kid and running around always saying Brynn’s name in his announcer’s voice: ‘Bryyyyyn Kamenickyyyyy,’” she recalled with a laugh.
Note – Some time has passed. Last weekend while mom was off conquering the South Central Region 1 field, Gabe attended his high school prom.
Mata recalls being in San Antonio, eating at Dick’s Bar and Grill on the Riverwalk, how much fun the team had together. It’s a feeling the program has been trying to recapture since 2007, the last time a Tarleton team made the regional tournament before the current upstart TexAnns.
Mata is taken aback by the deja vu moments she’s had with this team. Like the one she experienced when she used the same line last weekend as she did 23 years prior while wearing a purple and white basketball jersey and celebrating a national semifinal win.
“There are a lot of ties between this team and that (2003) team,” she says. “It seems like it’s fate or destiny or something. I just look at it as a blessing from God.”
Once more, she has a pitcher and a catcher who came to Tarleton together, this time after being high school teammates in Richland.
“Now we have Haley Freyman, and of course, she’s just been awesome for us,” says Mata, whose freshman ace is currently second in school history with 23 single-season wins including all three at last weekend’s regional in Canyon. “And her catcher, Nyka Wood, is so much like Brynn Kamenicky. She’s a character just like Brynn, a good character.”
Then there’s the connection between former Tarleton assistant coach Rus Mayes and current leading hitter Katelyn Conlee. Mayes left for the high school ranks and is now the head coach at Stephenville, where he coached Conlee, a hometown product. Conlee led Stephenville to its first softball playoff appearance and bi-district series victory in 2011, and was the primary pitcher for the fourth straight year when Mayes took over and guided the Bees back to the playoffs in 2012.
“Katelyn, of course, played for Rus, and he coached here back then when we were making regional tournaments and doing so well,” said Foster. “There are just a lot of moments with this team that make me look back to those teams, and that’s good. It shows that we have returned to that level, we can play with anyone in this region and have success.”
BRINGING IT BACK
Tarleton softball fell on some hard times. No regional tournament appearances for seven straight seasons, including losing records each season from 2009-2011. The TexAnns won 31 games in 2012, but were barely over .500 in 2013.
Then came 2014, a year Mata and coaches refuse to discuss.
“We have a running deal amongst the coaches that if anyone talks about last year they have to buy the rest of the coaching staff coffee,” said Mata, who is serious enough that standout players Conlee and Melody Mayse look to her for permission before discussing the turnaround from last year.
“We weren’t having fun, the girls were miserable. We had gotten away from the things we did that made us successful,” said Mata, the only comment she was willing to make about the 20-30 campaign. “So this year, our focus was on three words, and it’s our slogan – ‘Bring it back.’
And bring it back the TexAnns have.
Tarleton is 33-20 overall despite being just 24-19 after dropping the opening game of a doubleheader against Texas A&M-Kingsville on April 19. But the TexAnns bounced back to win the second game that day, then swept Eastern New Mexico a week later, scoring 51 runs in four games.
They turned to defense in the conference tournament opener, defeating Texas A&M-Commerce 2-1.
“If we don’t win that game, we don’t get to the regional tournament,” says Mata, noting that Tarleton was No. 8 and A&M-Commerce No. 9 in the regional poll entering the LSC Championship. “We felt like after we won that game we were probably going to get into the regional.”
And they did. Despite losing 9-1 to Texas Woman’s in the second round of the conference tournament.
“In a way, we experienced what the end would feel like,” said Mata. “We thought we were going to be okay and get in the regional, but there were no guarantees.”
Which may have been a blessing in disguise.
“When we got into the regional, I think we all decided, we don’t want to feel that way again. We want to make this go as long as we can.”
And they’re still going.
“We aren’t doing anything different, we’re just preparing like it’s any other game,” said Mata of preparations for the super regional.
But she is doing something different. She’s bringing it back.
With her team in the super regional, just two small steps from the Division II World Series, perhaps it’s already been brought.