Mariah Cruz all but gave up on softball. The sport she began playing age 5 no longer played a vital role in her life.
She used to play year-round. Her dad, Raphael Cruz III, used to coach her until she turned 12.
Four years later, Cruz quit playing softball. She says she had a falling out with her travel ball coach the summer going into her junior year at Newport Harbor High.
Cruz's then-travel ball coach, Tony Qualin, used to be her coach during her freshman season with the Sailors. He's the one who moved Cruz up to varsity. For one season, Qualin guided Cruz, before he stepped down at Newport Harbor.
With Qualin no longer in the picture with the Sailors, Cruz still decided not to play last season as a junior.
"I had a lot of self-confidence issues [because of her experience that summer with the travel ball team.]," Cruz said. "I started to just plummet. I had zero self-confidence, because I would like try so hard at practice and I would feel like I was doing a good job, and [Qualin] would praise me and tell me how good I was doing, but he wouldn't play me on the field during games. I didn't understand why. I just remember like specifically one time I asked him, 'Am I going to play in this game?' and he said, 'Yeah, I'll get you in like the next inning.' That was like the beginning of the game. I didn't play the rest of that game. That was the game where I stopped [playing]. I couldn't do it anymore."
After playing on varsity in her first two years with the Sailors, Cruz stayed away as a junior. Russell Hartman, who coached Cruz as a sophomore, didn't contact Cruz to find out why. The Sailors coach thought she might have burned out on softball.
Cruz didn't really want to hear from anyone involved with the sport.
Away from the field, Cruz spent time with friends and family, and enjoyed a social life. She took up acting school in Los Angeles. Acting helped her.
"When I was [at acting school], they called it a safe environment. No one's allowed to judge. That's all I was always ever scared of was being judged," Cruz said. "While I was there, I gained so much confidence.
"I had to go up in front of like all the parents and all the people and perform a monologue [to graduate]. To me [doing that last year], I would've said, 'I don't think so.'"
Cruz also never believed she would resume her softball career. Then she talked to her father about a possible return.
One day in November, while on her way to her locker at Newport Harbor, Cruz saw a softball flyer on a wall. She read the Sailors were holding tryouts. For a moment, Cruz saw herself playing softball again. The picture of a player fielding a ball on the flyer enticed her. With her cell phone, she took a photo of the flyer, to get the date and time for the tryout.
Cruz never showed up for the tryout.
"I was so torn," Cruz said. "I had gone like a whole season without playing. I kind of liked how [my life] was going."
Nevertheless, Cruz missed being part of a team. Before the holiday break in December, she emailed Hartman with: "I want to come back if I'm welcomed." Hartman responded right away, telling Cruz to come by the field to get sized up for gear.
Cruz didn't even have to try out.
"We don't get a whole lot of interest in softball in general," Hartman said. "Any time we lose any players, especially ones that are good athletes, it hurts. I was happy to hear that she was interested in coming back. We were happy to have her back."
Cruz put in the necessary work and time commitment to make the team. At the team's first practice in January, she only knew three players — Shea Horvath, Zoe Myers and Chasity Ta — from her playing days as a sophomore. The other player she was familiar with was Jenny Raya, but she was playing with the girls' basketball team during the winter season.
At first, no one asked where Cruz had been last year. Some asked if she had ever played before. From how she performed early on, it made sense.