The lessons from the game of life have meant much to Linda Garza as she works to resurrect a Fresno State softball program that has lost some of the luster from its 1998 NCAA championship.
The Hoover High School graduate led the Bulldogs to a 35-23 record in her inaugural season, good enough for the team’s 33rd NCAA tournament appearance that ended in a Seattle Regional 1-2 finish.
Garza realizes that any measurement of success will be judged against Margie Wright’s 27-year career record of 1,457-542-3, which makes her the NCAA’s all-time winningest softball coach.
While Garza goes about preparing for a schedule that includes 15 games against 2017 NCAA tournament schools and 14 games against teams that played in the 2017 National Invitational Softball Championship, memories of her mother are never far.
Losing her mother, Sarah Garza, to multiple myeloma (a cancer with symptoms that include nausea and numbness in the legs) last October, was a tough blow, one that was followed by the March death of her older brother, Darren Garza, 41, who died in a hit-and-run accident.
Her 72-year-old mother was an avid Fresno State fan attending many Red Wave football games and, up to her death, a regular spectator at Lady Bulldogs softball games. Linda, who earned the nickname “The sergeant” by her mother, remembers every moment.
“Mom was at every game. We pulled up her car, a black Prius, outside right field to watch games. We played a lot of night games, and it was cold, so we wanted to keep her in a controlled environment,” Linda, 38, recalls.
Two funerals the same year for immediate family members were difficult, but Garza points to the healing power of family and friends plus the support of the Bulldogs, the entire university and Red Wave supporters that her mother was a huge part of for decades.
“In the last 12 months, you find out how much softball was in terms of healing. It brought joy and laughter. When my mom was watching a game, you didn’t think of the cancer,” she said.
Mom was at every game. We pulled up her car, a black Prius, outside right field to watch games.
Garza recalls fondly a home game when a Fresno State player hit a grand slam.
“I caught her honking the horn. I had to text her and tell her, ‘Mom, you can’t be honking the horn in the game!’”
Linda grew up in Fresno. Her father, Tony, and his family were raised in nearby Sanger. He traversed the fields of California as a migrant farmworker prior to entering the grocery business for more than 25 years.
Her mother, Sarah, worked at the Clovis DMV office. Linda, the only female among her siblings, is the youngest of three children.
“He used to make us eat bean burritos,” said Linda of her father, who wanted his children to understand the life of a migrant worker.
“He was a field worker early in his lifetime, a migrant, followed the crops; followed the work until he got into the grocery business; but we were the ones, the family that got out of Sanger.”
She remembers many of her high school friends and competitors led very different lives.
Zaida Reyna, an Administrative Services Lead for the Lyles College of Engineering at Fresno State, is Linda’s aunt on her father’s side.
“When Linda’s mother was taking an enormous amount of pills, Linda created this chart. The way she made this chart, it was unbelievable like a play-by-play type of thing. Every movement she makes is play-by-play, looking beyond,” said Reyna.
“As a young girl, she always wanted to come and play for the valley and greatest desire was to play as a player for Fresno State. She always looked up to her two brothers. Being the youngest of the group and growing up with two boys really pushed. Linda to be the best and want to be better than her brothers. She would always do her best to beat them; small in stature, but her heart is big.”
“She (Sarah Garza) was the type of person, who had her ducks in a row, organized, she had a plan for them (her children); to see how she interacted with her children ... I always wanted to tell her what an inspiration. She was the mom I wanted to be.”
Returning to the Valley as coach of the Bulldogs softball team is her dream job.
She led UC Riverside to winning seasons in 2015 and 2016. At Wright State University, Garza won a league title and a ticket to the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs, who return 13 players (including five position players) and welcome 12 newbies, opened the season last weekend at the Kajikawa Classic hosted by Arizona State. The Bulldogs finished the tournament with three wins and two losses. The ‘Dogs were blanked 8-0 by No. 3 in the nation Oregon in the opening game. Fresno then defeated Stanford 2-0; lost 13-1 to No. 7 Arizona then defeated Purdue (13-4) and Notre Dame 5-4 over the three-day tournament.
Among the returners are junior centerfielder Vanessa Hernández, who made the all-Mountain West second team while hitting .292 with seven home runs and 40 RBIs and leading the team with 22 extra-base hits. Also returning this season are All-MW second-team honorees Samantha Mejía, a sophomore pitcher, and senior pitcher Sarah Santana.
Fresno State will play its home opener this weekend (Feb. 16-18) during the Bulldog Classic, which includes a 3:30 p.m. opening pitch on Friday (Feb. 16) against Cal State Bakersfield. The Lady Bulldogs then host UC Davis at 6 p.m. the same day.
“We welcome the opportunity to compete, learn, and get better all in preparation for the MW conference and post season competition,” Garza added. “This will be a great opportunity for our newcomers to gain experience early in preparation for their Bulldog careers.
“With a number of newcomers on the roster, we will be challenged early playing a number of competitive programs who have had success in postseason play,” Garza said. “Fresno State softball strives for success through challenges and this spring our team will encounter just that. The schedule offers a little balance at times along with competition against the nation’s best.”
“There is a saying ‘It’s not the size of the dog but it's the size of your heart that matters,’ Linda’s heart is big. It reminds me of the story of David and Goliath. She is finally home, as a family we are so proud of this young kid to be the coach of Fresno State,” added Reyna.
Fresno State Bulldogs softball roster
Hayleigh Galvan (catcher/oufielder)