atiana Cortez’s first college softball tournament wasn’t going how she had hoped.
It was Feb. 2014, and Boston College had traveled to Lafayette, La. for the Ragin’ Cajuns Invitational. Through the first five games, Cortez hadn’t had a single hit. For somebody who’d long been comfortable at the plate, it was a frustrating beginning to her BC career.
Then Michigan happened.
The Eagles played the then-No. 4 Wolverines in the final game of the tournament. Michigan pitcher Haylie Wagner—a future professional softball player—kept the Eagles scoreless in the first inning. Then, in the second, with Jordan Weed on first base, Cortez stepped to the plate.
Wagner surveyed her at the plate, then started her motions. She fired an inside pitch toward the plate. A fatal mistake—Cortez loves inside pitches. She swung and heard the crack of ball against bat—the sweet sound that tells batters and fans alike that this one is outta here. The ball soared all the way out to center field, a two-run homer to open up the box score. Cortez’s first hit of the tournament—her first career hit—was her first career home run.
Four years later, Cortez identified that moment as her favorite individual accomplishment as a BC softball player. “It was crazy,” she said through a wide smile. “I was just so happy.”
Cortez’s softball career began long before that magic moment. At age 5, the seeds of softball love were sewn in the halls of her Houston, Texas elementary school. Every day, Cortez walked past a sign advertising tryouts for the Westbury Softball League. Her friends all joined teams, so Cortez decided to start playing, too.
BC fans who know Cortez as a catcher and third baseman would be surprised to see the list of positions she’s played over the course of her career. Cortez moved around the diamond a lot, beginning as a pitcher before trying out middle infield. Eventually, she settled in the outfield. When she started to lose her speed advantage, it was time for her coaches to move her again. This time, it was to a position where she excelled, and a position she still plays today: catcher.
Her coaches needed someone with a strong arm to take on one of the most demanding positions in the field, so they turned to Cortez. She alternated between third base and catcher, excelling at both positions. As she settled into her new defensive identity, Cortez continued to work on her swing.
Today, Cortez is known as a formidable hitter. In the early stages of her softball career, however, she wasn’t quite as skilled in the batter’s box. Determined to improve her swing, she spent hours studying swings online and practicing at batting cages, tweaking little things until she saw improvement. Cortez never had a permanent one-on-one hitting coach—she went every so often to various coaches, but the main catalyst for her improvement was her mother, Sheri.
Though she never played softball herself, Sheri quickly grew to love the sport because of her daughter. She became knowledgeable about softball and offered advice whenever Cortez needed it, serving as a source of support throughout Cortez’s career. Today, Cortez estimates that her mother attends about 95 percent of BC’s home games—despite living halfway across the country.
Cortez’s hard work paid off, and as she began to improve on both sides of the diamond, she got a taste of real success with her club team, Impact Gold. When she was 14 years old, Cortez and her Impact Gold teammates traveled to Panama City, Fla. for the U.S. Fastpitch Association Softball World Series, eventually placing fourth in the competition.
In addition to her work with Impact Gold, Cortez played varsity softball for Westside High School for four years. During that time, she gathered a number of accolades and made a name for herself in the Houston area. In addition to being the league’s Freshman of the Year, Cortez was a two-time member of the All-District First Team and, in her senior year, was the area’s MVP. During her junior and senior seasons, she even made the Texas Sportswriters All-State Team.
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ith her talent, résumé, and work ethic, it may seem like it was always a given that Cortez would realize her longtime dream and play Division I college softball. But the people who should have supported and uplifted Cortez—her coaches—thought she couldn’t make it.
“I’ve always wanted to play college ball, and I always had coaches telling me I would never be able to do it,” Cortez said.
Rather than let the skeptics pull her down, Cortez worked even harder to achieve what she knew was possible for her. Sure enough, despite her coaches’ lack of faith, schools soon came knocking. She received scholarship opportunities from several Power Five teams, including Arkansas and Pitt.
BC head coach Ashley Obrest was shocked when she discovered Cortez for the first time. She couldn’t believe that Cortez’s coaches doubted her talent and that she hadn’t already committed someplace by the time BC came calling.
“I said to myself, ‘How is she still available?’” Obrest said. “You don’t have to watch her that many times to know she’s got that ‘it’ factor, and that’s what we look for.”
Intrigued by Cortez’s defensive potential and impressed with her offensive prowess, Obrest contacted Cortez. A week later, despite nursing a finger injury, Cortez was at summer camp, eager to show her interest in the program. Between the beautiful campus, improving roster, and great education, Cortez didn’t have a hard time settling on BC.
Cortez played a huge part on the team from the beginning of her freshman year. She started 52 games her freshman year, hitting .239. But she showed her power threat, with 49 RBIs—the most on the team—to go along with 11 homers. Cortez also committed just three errors over the course of the entire season, proving that she could contribute with the glove, too.
Over the next two years, Cortez continued to be one of the Eagles’ most dangerous threats on both sides of the ball. During her sophomore campaign, other teams opted to walk her rather than give her the opportunity to hit—she led the team in free passes, with 33. Despite those pitchers’ attempts to neutralize her offensive threat, Cortez still knocked in 39 RBIs and 10 home runs that year. Once again, she committed just three errors over the entire season. In her junior season, she solidified her position as one of the conference’s best players, earning First Team All-ACC honors. Cortez hit .380, including 13 homers. She set BC’s single-season slugging percentage record at .768 and committed just one error all year.
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imply put, Cortez has been the heart of the team for the past two years.
“She plays the game the right way, she plays it hard,” Obrest said. “She always walks away with her uniform dirty, so she’s diving for balls. When she’s in the box she goes hard at pitches.”
Her teammate Taylor Coroneos agrees. Coroneos knows Cortez best out of anyone on the team—the two have roomed together every year. Coming into freshman year, they both knew they wanted to room with an athlete, so they chose to live together despite not knowing one another. Over their four years, Coroneos says she has seen Cortez’s confidence grow—and the team’s confidence in Cortez grow, too.
Elected team captain as a junior, Cortez has tried to lead by example over the course of her career, emulating the seniors who took her under their wing when she was a freshman. Obrest believes that the younger players look up to Cortez, hoping to follow her lead during their tenure at BC. As catcher, Cortez is a lot like a quarterback—serving as leader on the field, calling the shots, and demanding that everyone else on the team perform their duty. When Obrest sees Cortez on the field, she is reminded of one NFL star in particular—the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton.
“He is super athletic back there, and willing to take hits, and that’s what she’s willing to do,” Obrest said. “They have a little bit of the same personality, too—they’re both a little flashy, in a good way.”
Flashy works when you have the talent to back it up on the field, and Cortez certainly does. She’s aware that she may break several BC records this season, but isn’t focused on that. Instead, she’s taking every at-bat and every play as they come, focusing on doing her job and doing it well.
The Eagles opened their 2017 campaign at the Houston Hilton Plaza Invitational. Cortez was overjoyed at the prospect of beginning her senior season in her hometown—she almost cried tears of joy last year when Obrest told her that they’d participate in the tournament in Houston. Bolstered by the crowd of friends, family, and fans who showed up to cheer her on, Cortez made a splash at the invitational. In one game against the University of Houston, Cortez went 3-for-3, hitting two home runs. She added another homer against UC Santa Barbara, bringing her total to three for the weekend.
As of March 1, Cortez is taking a temporary leave of absence from the team to spend time with her father, a Houston police officer who was injured in the line of duty. But when she returns, it will spell bad news for the Eagles’ opponents. As the season progresses, Cortez’s coaches and teammates expect her to put up the same strong numbers and continue to provide leadership for the team. Cortez is more than happy to oblige, but knows that this will be a bittersweet year. After all, everything she does will be one step closer to the end of her college career.
“This is my last hoorah,” she said. “I’m trying to do the best I can in everything right now.”
Featured Images by Haley Cormier / Heights Archive | Chris Coduto / Courtesy of BC Athletics