Cal State Dominguez Hills softball team uses painful flight to fuel best year ever

The women of the Cal State Dominguez Hills softball team shake hands as they walk on the outdoor field of the Assembly Athletic Complex in Denver.

They were coming off a 6-1 loss in the final game of the NCAA Division II Championship Series to Rogers State of Claremore, Okla. After a historic spring that saw CSUDH win its first NCAA West regional title, as well as compete in a championship series for the first time in its 40-year history, teammates experienced a moment of unity.

All season, the Toros (45-24) stuck together.

“We are 20 girls…and I can tell you we haven’t had any drama once,” said Raquel Jaime, a senior player. “Our chemistry was there. We were there for each other on and off the pitch.

This link proved to be crucial in the beginning. Long before the Championship Series in the final two days of May, team members traveled from their campus in Carson to Rohnert Park for a California Collegiate Athletic Assn. series against Sonoma State. On March 3, their flight arrived in Oakland, where they boarded rental vans for the final leg of the trip. They stopped at a plaza near Oakland International Airport before heading north.

Alyssa Olague, a junior pitcher, walked into a Starbucks with a group of teammates and coaches. Jaime and the rest of the team munched on sandwiches in a nearby subway. As she ate, Jaime looked out the window of the sandwich shop and saw a group of men dressed in sweatpants and hoodies smashing van windows and removing personal effects from vehicles.

Shocked, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2022 NCAA Division II Championship Series, ran outside to confront the Rogues. Then she said her instincts kicked in and she backed off. The moment she grabbed her teammates, Jaime said, the men jumped into a car and drove off.

“I just had to memorize the license plate,” Jaime said. “That was what it was then.”

After the Starbucks ride, Olague said she and a few others went to the gas station there. Unaware of the theft, they walked out laughing. That laughter stopped once they saw their crying teammates standing by the ransacked vans.

“You go on one of those incredible, memorable trips with everyone…and something ruins it,” Olague said. “Your heart sank in your stomach in a way because you didn’t know if your stuff was stolen, if any of your teammates stuff was stolen.”

Olague has lost almost everything. Softball equipment. Wallet. Passport. Eyeglasses. contacts. Portable. Chargers. She and other crew members had to freeze their Social Security numbers and print other forms of identification for the return flight.

Among Jaime’s stolen items were her car keys, for which she had no spares. She said a locksmith charged $300 to replace the keys. No one was physically injured, but 13 bags containing softball equipment and personal effects were stolen, according to a GoFundMe page started by parents, elders and community members to help the team.

Money from the Page that raised $1,495 is being deposited directly to the softball team through the athletic program, coach Jim Maier said. The university also supported the team by providing iPads, keyboards and other materials.

Maier said the Oakland Police Department didn’t respond to calls from the coaching staff, but that didn’t change the fact that the Toros had a game the next day. They returned the mutilated vans to the car rental agency and exchanged them for new ones. They bought new equipment from a local store. Next, CSUDH played the series, winning three of four games against Sonoma State.

“I asked the team what they wanted to do…and they wanted to play,” Maier said. “They went up there and put that behind them and played really well.”

The Toros’ resilience continued in the playoffs, but in the end, Rogers State proved too much for the young Cal State Dominguez Hills team that included six true freshmen and lost three postseason seniors.

Although the players were disappointed not to have won a national title, they know how to move forward.

“After [the theft] happened, I would just say our team could overcome anything at that point,” said Ashley Wies, a sophomore pitcher. “All the challenges we face, we can overcome if we have each other.”

Wies said she was grateful for the loss on the pitch as the team can spot areas where they can improve for next season. Olague echoes that sentiment.

“You feel the pain,” Olague said, “but you also feel this fire.”

During that walk through the Assembly Athletic Complex after losing the championship series, returning players told departing seniors that they would come back to win it all.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.