SANTA ANA – It all starts with a deep breath.
Mater Dei shortshop Neli Casares-Maher always makes sure to inhale deeply before each plate appearance.
“I just take a deep breath,” she said, “and that gets me to relax.”
That fundamental method of relaxation has worked wonders for Casares-Maher during her final season as a Monarch, as she hit a home run in three consecutive games in March.
When asked about her power surge, Casares-Maher gave a humble response.
“Honestly, I guess it’s just not thinking about it,” she said, “not thinking about trying to hit it far, just working on my swing. Just to get base hits and when it comes it comes.”
That approach paid dividends during Mater Dei’s game against Roosevelt of Eastvale last month. Casares-Maher hit a two-run walk-off home run that capped a stunning comeback victory for the Monarchs, who trailed by six runs in the final inning.
In her first season as Mater Dei’s coach, Jessica Foley looks for her “silent leader” to be an instrumental component for a team trying to defend its CIF-SS Division 1 title from last season.
“She’s a huge part of our defense,” Foley said. “She’s definitely one of the best shortstops I’ve ever coached, if not the best.
“She’s tough, she works hard and keeps everyone interested and everyone moving. I think without her on the field, our momentum kind of drops a little bit.”
Casares-Maher, who hit .384 with one home run last season, said she learned a lot about the importance of team cohesiveness during last season’s championship run.
“The chemistry between that team was great,” she said. “We all had fun while playing and it really paid off. We worked our butts off, but in league we didn’t do that well, but we knew we were the underdogs. So we just kept going out there to do what we love and it definitely paid off.”
Casares-Maher hopes this year’s team can develop the same kind of attitude. The Monarchs have struggled in recent weeks and have started off 1-2 in the Trinity League. But this past Saturday, Mater Dei (17-6 overall) won the Alan Dugard Classic by beating La Serna, 3-0, in the championship game.
“This year we’re figuring things out about our team and different things that are going on, so we’re just really trying to work as a team and do what we love,” she said. “Being on varsity for the past four years, I’ve learned a lot too, so I’m really trying to help the freshmen out and the new people.”
Casares-Maher also strives to keep her education as a top priority, which is one of the reasons she chose to sign with Syracuse.
“The Syracuse coach (Mike Bosch) was really interested in me and I went out there and I really loved it,” Casares-Maher said. “I’m really into the educational part, too, because after softball that’s all you have.”
Casares-Maher is clear about her individual goals for this season.
“My individual goal is just to get better everyday, not only the physical but the mental part too,” she said. “A lot of softball is character too, so I just want to be a better person while I’m playing and to execute for my team and get things done for them.”
Ultimately Casares-Maher emphasizes the fun part of softball to reach her collective goals.
“We just need to have a fun season because when we have fun we get really good things done.”
Yet it always comes back to that essential element for Casares-Maher.
“When you focus too much sometimes it takes over, so you just have to relax … and breathe.”
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