LOGAN, Utah - When the class of 2017 first stepped onto the campus of Utah State, each knew they wanted to make a difference. As their freshman season as Aggie softball players progressed, every player recognized things they hoped to change and started working on a plan to leave that impact.
This season, there are three members of the original group that came to Logan in 2013, and they have been joined by four others. Sydney Hart, Paxton Provost and Victoria Saucedo have played their full four years as Aggies, while April Brown, Kylie-Rose Dickson, Sarina Jaramillo and Amanda Sheets transferred in from other programs.
From the very beginning, these players wanted to instill change in the culture of the program, both on and off the field. The changes this group wanted to see included everything from the team experience to the results in competition.
"It was a learning curve. There were experiences we had our freshman year that made us want to be different. It got better every year, but we knew when we were seniors we wanted to change," Provost said. "Between us and the coaches, and knowing what they wanted to instill, we knew that when it was our chance, we didn’t want to treat people that way. We didn’t want to make underclassmen feel isolated or below us. That creates a divide. The only way for this program to be better and keep excelling, is to be all about it and apply it. It was a choice that we made as a senior class to welcome everyone. We hope that continues on when we’re gone."
In the year prior to their arrival, the USU team finished the season with an 11-43 overall record. Now, at the conclusion of the 2017 regular season, the Aggies have a 32-16 ledger, including 14 Mountain West victories. The team saw an improvement in its final standings every season, setting program bests in several categories, and setting multiple records.
"As a group, they’ve really bought into what we’ve been preaching about playing for each other and the team concept. They’ve shown that by being great leaders and making everything, on and off the field, about the team," said Utah State head coach Steve Johnson. "Not once this year has there been a senior-first mentality, and that’s allowed the underclassmen to thrive in their roles because they know they’re just as important as the seniors."
By creating the team environment, the Aggie roster has grown closer, which has resulted in better performances on the field.
"This is the first year that our entire team, including the staff and managers and trainers, have come together and really been on the same page. That changed the culture of the team. You can see how much more fun we’re having on the field, and I think that’s why we’ve been playing better," Hart said. "It’s crazy to think that we’re still playing for something this late in the season. In past years, we’ve known that finals week was pretty much it, and we knew when our last game would be. We don’t know when that’s going to be yet. After four years, this is finally where we want it to be."
For the first time since 1993, Utah State's postseason hopes are still alive. When the team made its goals at the beginning of the year, it looked to win the Mountain West and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"We didn’t settle," Hart said. "We shot high and we played hard."
While the conference title slipped away, the Aggies still have a chance to be selected to the newly reinstated National Invitational Softball Championships.
"At our retreat we made our core covenants and talked about what we expect from each other as a team. That really helped, as well. We all collaborated in creating that," Dickson said. "When you have all those perspectives and everyone is heard, that makes a huge difference. We created that family environment and made it clear that we held high expectations for ourselves and each other. When you do that, it all falls into place."
The goal for the seniors was to get every player to buy-in to what they had to say. It would take all 20 members of the roster to be on board to accomplish what they wanted to do.
"Not only did the seniors bring about the change, but the rest of the team, as well. They bought into what we had to say, and that’s huge for building a program," Saucedo said. "You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The other classes have done a good job of believing in us as much as we believed in each other."
From the day this group joined the Aggies in Logan, they wanted to take the team that was there and turn it into a family.
"Coming in on our visit, they taught us that Utah State as a whole preaches the Aggie family. That starts on campus and trickles down to Athletics. That’s the culture they want. We didn’t necessarily see that with our program when we got here," Provost said. "It was the coaching staff coming in and saying they wanted to buy-in to what the school wanted. It started from the top and has worked its way through. It’s been successful and has been such a positive thing."
After the first two years, the improvement was already noticeable and drew the attention of others looking for the next step. Jaramillo joined the team after two seasons at Hawai'i, while Brown, Dickson and Sheets each came from two years of junior college experience.
"I wanted to keep playing, and Utah State wanted me to be here. I didn’t know much about the past, but I don’t think it would have mattered if I did. This is a great place to be," Sheets said. "Knowing that they wanted me meant they would want other people like me. I wanted to be part of a team that wanted to be a family and make something great. And we did that, both years that I’ve been here."
Jaramillo liked what she saw with the then-new Utah State coaching staff.
"Where I came from, the staff wasn’t really what I thought they would be," Jaramillo said. "This is the first time in my four years of college that I can honestly say I’m on a team that everyone bought into and believed in."
As the season nears its final days, the Utah State seniors like what they're leaving behind.
"We all get to pass on what we learned here. We’re going to hold this experience and pass it on to other people," Sheets said. "It’s cool to get to be that person that can have that experience and be there for everyone else. I’d wish this on anyone."
The group came in with a very specific goal, and while that wasn't quite reached, there was obvious progress made moving to future seasons.
" I’ll always be able to say that we left a legacy here. Just like we were changing the 1996 team, groups from here on out will be wanting to chase that 2017 team," Saucedo said. "They’ll look at what we’ve done and know that that is what it takes to succeed and that will continue to get passed on."
As a whole, the team is proud of what they've accomplished, and the turn-around they've seen in such a short time.
"This is how the book was supposed to be written. There’s nothing else to say about it. You can always look back and think ‘We should have won that game,’ or ‘This could have gone differently,’ but what good is that going to do?," Jaramillo said. "Looking back on this season, I’m just so proud of everyone. In just my two years here, there has been a dramatic change."
Wrapping up his fourth year as USU's head coach, Johnson is grateful for the impact this class has made.
"We talk about legacy all the time and we’re seeing some of that right now. By raising the bar for this program to win consistently and compete for the Mountain West title and a postseason berth, it impacts what the expectations are for this program down the road. They’ve set the bar for the culture of this program, where they play for each other and how things are supposed to get done so when they leave, the next generation knows how to step up and teach the new players what we’re all about," Johnson said. "Their legacy will also live on as we continue to be able to recruit at a very high level and as we make improvements to our facility. As we have improved the program on the field, we have also improved the program’s image in the Utah State and softball community to one that is respected and seen as a great place to be a part of. That will be their lasting legacy."
With the season wrapping up and graduation already in the books, the 2017 senior class is looking forward to the rest of their lives, while trying to learn what a world without softball looks like.
"We all have this passion for the game and we’ll miss it, but it’s going to be this whole new experience without the softball obligations," Dickson said. "We have a blank slate and can do whatever we want."
Regardless of how the year finishes, the seniors will look back on their experience of Utah State positively. As they move forward outside of softball, they know they have created lifelong memories with teammates they will forever regard as friends.
"I wouldn’t have wanted to go through this with anyone else," Provost said. "It’s hard to make it through four years of this, but everyone here has made it fun."
"This team is special," she said. "That’s the only way to describe it."
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