When the San Diego State Aztec’s season ended in May, the same fans that filled the stands for the Mountain West Conference champions returned for the launch of AUX Softball. The inaugural season is an expansion of the Athletes Unlimited model, giving players more opportunities to compete throughout the year.
Victoria Hayward knows what it’s like to be a part of building something from the ground up. She’s the first athlete who signed to AU and the chairperson of the Softball Player Executive Committee. In November, she joined the SDSU coaching staff and helped guide the program to a 39-16 record (.709), the second-best in program history.
After falling to no. 8 Arizona State at the NCAA Tempe Regional final, most of the SDSU athletes would pack up and head home for the summer. But this summer it’s different. Many of them have stayed around for AUX.
“To have them continue to watch the game – watch the best people in the game – I think that’s a huge way you continue to grow as an athlete,” Hayward said.
This isn’t the first time pros and Aztecs have shared a field on campus. As the program launched its inaugural season in 1977, professional softball was competing on the field next door. The International Women’s Professional Softball Association (WPS) was in its second year and the San Diego Sandpipers called SDSU home too.
Co-founded by Billie Jean King, Joan Joyce, and commissioner Dennis A. Murphy, the WPS set out with a goal that sounds similar to Athletes Unlimited.
The commissioner wrote in his opening letter to softball fans, “We know that the era of the ‘woman athlete’ is here… we join with you that the future is unlimited for women’s sports and together we will be a part of history.”
Almost half a century later, AU is furthering the same goals of the WPS and Sandpipers: bringing professional softball around the country and expanding opportunities for players to make a living as pros.
A career path emerges
For many SDSU softball players, continuing their softball career at the next level wasn’t in their sights before a coach like Hayward.
Conference Pitcher of the Year Maggie Balint thought that after her season was canceled by COVID-19, she’d compete another year and be finished. Until she got “an itch” as a senior.
Thankfully “Coach Vic,” a 13-year veteran of the Canadian National Softball Team and Olympian, was in her ear.
“Vic (Hayward) came in and she’s like, ‘Dude, you can totally do it,'” Balint said. “‘If you wanna, go get it.'”
She knew there would be aspects to her game she would need to develop, especially considering she had no expectations the five years prior to ever playing pro.
Balint made professional debut on the same field she finished her collegiate career just a few weeks prior.
She’s alongside Hayward, who has gone from coach to teammate. Meanwhile, her former teammates – sophomores and juniors with collegiate eligibility – are watching them both.
“They’re texting me after games,” Hayward said. “Either telling me the things I did well or telling me like, ‘Oh, come on! It’s okay.’ They’re being my number one supporters.”
As a coach, Hayward says this is all she could want. She challenges them to pay attention to the pros and peppers them with questions.
Who is in your position? How can you be more like them? What can you learn from them?
The opportunity to see professional softball in southern California has been restored and its impact is being felt on campus and beyond.
Volleyball: Where to Watch Week 4
Week 2 Draft: Meet the Week 2 Teams
Landmark decisions blaze crucial path for women in sports