During the first Cuesta College softball meeting last fall, there was much rejoicing when freshman Rachel Thompson told the other Cougars she was there to pitch.
It hardly mattered that Thompson only threw a couple games her senior season at Righetti High and prior to that hadn’t played softball since the eighth grade.
“They were all so happy, like ‘Thank God,’ ” Thompson said. “I pretty much knew all fall that it was just going to be me.”
Entering high school, Thompson was so burnt out on the sport, she gave it up to become a cheerleader for the Warriors. She came back when she realized how much she missed the competition, and it was just in time for the Cougars.
Chelsie Rodriguez was gone from Cuesta after two productive seasons, and sophomore Stacie Salazar left early to accept a scholarship at a four-year school — leaving Thompson as the only pitcher on the team with any experience.
Now 27 games into the season, Thompson picked up her 12th win Thursday as Cuesta (12-14-1, 6-3 Western State Conference) topped visiting Santa Barbara City College 6-2 to remain in the hunt for what would be a surprise conference title.
The Cougars would be unlikely champions — not only because Thompson remains the team’s only pitcher, a player who has spent 174 of the team’s 176 1/3 total innings in the circle —but when Thompson joined the team, it was also missing another vital piece.
A head coach.
Sara Clarin stepped down over the summer to spend more time with family, and after the Cuesta women’s tennis program was suspended when its coach resigned in the offseason, there was plenty of uncertainty.
“We came on the first day, and they said, ‘We haven’t gotten a coach yet. We don’t know what we’re going to do,’ ” said sophomore third baseman Alyssa Giordanengo, a former Arroyo Grande High standout. “ ‘Hopefully, we’ll get a coach by spring, but if not, the program’s going to be on hold.’
“We just had to push through on our own and expect more out of ourselves. There was no choice whether we were to lead or not. We had to come out and set an example for the girls, work ethic and things like that, get it done and get ready for the spring.”
Said Thompson: “There was definitely a lot of leadership with the sophomores. They did a great job of keeping the team together. It was tough not having a coach and not being sure what was going happen. At a certain point, we thought it was going to get cut altogether.”
Mike Steuerwald, a former college baseball coach who came to Cuesta after a stint as an assistant with the National Pro Fastpitch softball league, was introduced as the new Cougars head coach the first week of January.
In the short time since, Steuerwald has taken an unheralded group of 13 players and coached them to a third-place standing in the WSC Gold Division, just two games behind league-leading Ventura (18-7, 7-1 WSC).
It was a rocky start. Cuesta was winless through four games and began the season 4-12-1. In her first start, Thompson walked 11 batters, and her 120 total walks is the running Cougars career record.
But since, Thompson has shrugged off an inordinate amount of fatigue and lowered her ERA to 3.26. She walked just three and struck out five against Santa Barbara City (14-9, 4-4 WSC). And she’s developed into one of the team’s top hitters, batting .348 with 18 RBI.
Giordanengo, who was 1 for 2 with an RBI against the Vaqueros, is batting .368 with a team-leading 20 RBI, and freshman Megan Donovan is batting a team-high .378.
Other team leaders include sophomore Alex Ramirez, who was 2 for 4 with a run, an RBI and a steal Thursday, and sophomore shortstop McKenna Coelho, a former Templeton High standout who had taken a year off from the sport.
Perhaps in line with the theme of this season’s team, Ramirez, who owns the Cuesta career record for steals (46), was home-schooled and never played high school softball. Even her club experience was minimal.
And Steuerwald had to recruit Coelho, who played one season at San Francisco State before leaving softball and returning to San Luis Obispo County. She was the only person to join the team after he did.
“I’m really excited about how far we’ve progressed,” Steuerwald said. “From that first week in January to where we are now, we’ve made huge strides.
“We have 13 right now that are working hard every day, not just on the field but in the classroom and the weight room, and they’ve taken it as a challenge. They’ve kind of taken to that underdog role a little bit.”