By Dave Wagner: PNT sports writer
Coming into this season, seniors Jessica Nocas and Tina Whitt seemed unlikely candidates to threaten Eastern New Mexico University’s home run record in softball. After all, they hit only six between them a year ago.
Nonetheless, the high school rivals from Riverside, Calif., head into this weekend’s four-game Lone Star Conference South Division series against Texas Woman’s at Zia Softball Field with 11 homers each — good enough to share the conference lead and tie the school mark set by Rachel Mohler in 2000 and matched by Nikki Gay three years later.
“It’s just kind of happened,” said Whitt, a catcher-third baseman who transferred to ENMU with Nocas and pitcher Rosemary Moreno from Midland (Texas) Junior College last year. “It’s not anything that I planned.
“It’s my last year. I wanted to kind of go all out and finish strong.”
Nocas, a shortstop, said she became aware of the record a couple of weeks ago.
“Ever since, I’ve kind of — not focused on it, but kept my eye on it,” she said. “It’s kind of exciting.”
They are a major part of a record-setting home run binge by the Zias (28-14, 8-4 South), who’ve clouted a league-leading 50 so far to obliterate the previous ENMU mark of 31 set in 2001 and 2003. In addition, ENMU is hitting an LSC-best .364 as a team — well above the school standard of .328 set by last year’s squad, which also led the conference in hitting.
It’s been quite a run for a team picked to finish last this season in the seven-team South.
“They just play so hard,” ENMU coach Armando Quiroz said. “When they get down (in a game), they truly believe they can come back.”
Both players said the Zias have developed a solid camaraderie this season. Instead of fighting among themselves, they roll with the punches.
“Our team motto is ‘just laugh about it,’” said Nocas, who is hitting .439 and also leads the LSC in hits (65) and runs (44). “I think that’s why we’re doing so good. We just laugh about things instead of worrying about them.”
In high school, Nocas said she was best friends with the second baseman on Whitt’s team, who told her that Whitt was planning to go to Midland.
“We grew up together and played ball together,” she said of Whitt. “It’s just second nature for us to play ball together.”
Whitt, hitting .401 this season, said coming to Texas with someone she knew made the transition easier.
“Her dad was my softball coach when I was 12,” she said.
Both were recruited to ENMU by then-coach Kevin Blaskowski, who left to start the program at rival West Texas A&M before last season. Armando Quiroz was hired in his place, but shortly after the season started he dislocated an ankle when he backed over a batting helmet during practice and missed the rest of the campaign.
Grad assistant Amber Daniel stepped in, and ENMU finished a respectable 20-29.
“The hard times we had last year have helped us pull together this year,” Whitt said. “Last year we were a bunch of individuals; this year it’s a group effort for sure.”
Now, with 12 games left, the Zias are trying to nail down one of the three LSC postseason tournament berths from the division.
“We just have to maintain it,” said Quiroz, whose team split four games at first-place Abilene Christian last weekend and has won 17 of its last 21. “Like I told the team, half the job is done.”