Clark Can Hit the Ball a Smile
UCSB can be a scary place for an innocent like softball freshman Kristen Clark.
If the mid-terms of autumn don't get you, the rise-ball pitchers of spring will.
"You've really got to stay on top of everything," she said.
But Clark, a rookie outfielder with a cherubic face and the disposition to match, hasn't been losing any sleep over it.
"Lauren Boser rooms with Kristen, and she came up to us and said, 'She even smiles in her sleep!" Gaucho coach Brie Galicinao said. "We joked with Boser about it, asking why she'd be watching Kristen sleep, and she said, 'No! No! Seriously! She smiles in her sleep!'"
It seems Clark can hit in her sleep, too. She broke UCSB's single-season hit record of 75 four games ago and has since run her total up to an NCAA-leading 83. She leads the Big West Conference with a batting average of .432 and is second in stolen bases with 25.
Her 76th hit during a dramatic win over Hawaii on April 27 stirred a post-game celebration usually reserved for a veteran on a title-clinching Senior Day.
"After we'd won, coach gave me the ball from my 76th hit, and then the seniors came over and picked me up and carried me around," Clark recalled. "It all happened really quickly. At first I was going, 'Whoa! What's going on?'
"But it was really cool and it made the moment really special."
Clark was even celebrated by the ex-Gaucho whose record she'd broken. Christine Ramos, now an assistant coach for UCSB, awaited Clark in the first-base coach's box after her sharp single up the middle drove in the final run of a 6-4 victory.
"I looked at her and went, 'Oh! That was the one!'" Clark recalled. "And she went, 'Yeah!' And she was the first to congratulate me, which was really cool. She was pretty excited."
It's been a thrilling stretch run for all Gauchos, who've won 12 of their last 14 games to pull into a first-place tie with Long Beach State in the Big West Conference race.
"That freshman class in general, how they work and their demeanor on and off the field, has helped us make this such a special season," Galicinao said while noting also the contributions of shortstop Emily Brucelas and centerfielder Stacy Cavazos.
Their regular season is headed for a climactic finish this weekend with Long Beach coming to UCSB for a noon doubleheader on Friday and a noon single game on Saturday. An automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament and the first softball championship in Gaucho history are at stake.
"We've definitely tried to look just one weekend at a time - even just one pitch at a time - but I do know that I've looked ahead," Clark confessed. "When you play softball, everyone dreams of the College World Series and of playing in the tournament.
"I've watched it on TV every year since I was a girl."
That actually wasn't so long ago. Clark, 19, moved with her family from Woodlands, Texas to Danville after her freshman year of high school. She soon earned a nickname, "Tex," which belies her 5-foot-5 frame.
But she can run like the Rio Grande.
"She's our fastest," Galicinao said. "She hit an inside-the-park home run this year, and I've never seen that done here before."
Ramos helped Clark beat her record by working on her left-handed slap-hitting skills.
"She's been teaching me how to hit different pitches, and where to place it against different defenses," Clark said.
Galicinao saw Clark's potential while watching her play for Monte Vista High and the San Jose Sting travel-ball team, but even she's been surprised with how quickly the speedy outfielder has arrived.
"A lot of the times when I'd show up to her games, I'd see her strike out or pop up," she said. "She was chasing a lot of pitches when I watched her. I'd purposely stand back there so they kind of feel the pressure. I'm curious how they react to it.
"But for Tex, it was mostly just a matter of pitch selection, and of settling her nerves."
Clark arrived at UCSB last fall with the usual, freshman trepidation. But she found Galicinao, a former pitcher and honors student at Princeton University, to be the right coach to settle her down.
"She's more a logical-type coach who thinks things through and is very mental," she said. "A lot of the coaches I've had were more vocal. If I did something wrong, they'd get verbal about it.
"But coach Brie will try to think it through with you, help you understand what went wrong and how you can get better. I used to get uptight when I'd hit, but coach Brie will always just say, 'Take a deep breath ... Relax."
Galicinao also got her freshman leadoff hitter to develop a routine to her batting.
"She's actually one of those players that you only have to tell once and she fixes it," she said. "It's a dream to work with that."
Clark thought she'd entered "dreamland" when she took her recruiting visit to "this gorgeous and fantastic place." But she's also had time so far for only one, five-minute walk to the beach.
The best walk she's taken actually came when her feet didn't even touch the ground.
"In my time coaching here, never has a team wanted to hoist a player up for any reason, and there have been some pretty big things that have happened," Galicinao said. "I just think that says a lot about her as a big performer, as a real good teammate, and as a sweet, sweet young lady."
And as a dreamer who's put a smile on all the Gauchos' faces.