Softball Head Coach Linda Garza knows talent when she sees it. She has coached hundreds of student athletes during her coaching career that has seen stops at UNLV, Purdue and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The experienced veteran knows that there is something special in senior outfielder Dionne Anderson.
“I have been around speed a heck of a lot. And Dionne Anderson ranks among my top two, if not my top runner and I’ve been around some great athletes who have stolen some bases,” Garza stated. At the start of the season, Anderson may have had no idea that she’d break both the UCR and Big West Conference record for steals in a single season, but her coach did. “All of a sudden, Dionne got to around 25 early on, and she didn’t know but in my mind I said, ‘This kid can get it.’” On April 19, Anderson broke a longstanding conference record for stolen bases and now looks to continue shattering expectations.
Having a record-breaking season isn’t achieved overnight. Anderson owes it to having a full off-season to train. “I was injured … for sophomore and junior year, so I was kind of taking the off-season easy. But I knew I was going into my last season so I definitely lifted more and did more workouts on the bike before my team started in the fall.” An experienced athlete knows their body’s limits as Anderson did during her practices. “I made sure I did everything at 75 to 80 percent, so when I did do it in the game, it wasn’t like trying for the first time. It was a lot of just like keeping myself mentally focused, even if I couldn’t work as hard on the field, that I still had it, that it wasn’t going to hold me back from what I wanted to accomplish.”
Another factor that contributed to her successful senior year was her coach. Garza came to UCR during Anderson’s second year, picking up where the previous coach left off. This may have led to some trust issues within the team. Garza recalled, “I still remember, the first day of our meeting, (Dionne) rolling her eyes and being skeptical about it. I had to prove to her that I had the path or at least the knowledge that we were gonna go somewhere, ‘cause I think in her mind that she had lost trust that the program was going anywhere.” Their relationship has grown now into a mutual respect and bond. “It’s cool now because she’ll be staring down there in the third base box, and kind of saying, ‘What do you want me do now?’”
Anderson didn’t know it then, but after working with Garza for three years, she realized her full potential and spent her last year helping her teammates find theirs. “This is a kid that I didn’t think would be able to do some of the things that she’s been able to do, from even a personal standpoint. She used to get caught in the wrong crowd, not making the best decisions. Then all of a sudden in senior year she’s telling people, ‘Don’t make the same mistakes I made, I wish I had two more years of this. Had I made better decisions maybe I could’ve broke more records or helped this team win more.’”
Garza knew that Anderson could use some assistance in managing school, softball and a social life. “I just think sometimes all of us need structure, even the ones that don’t want it. I still allowed her to have wiggle room to be Dionne, but enough boundaries to move her in the direction we wanted, and you know what? She’s been fun. Anderson has shown that she has matured since she got here,” Garza explained. “She’s an example of what happens when one takes the faith of other people and a dedicated work ethic.”
Being the only senior on the team could be a struggle for some, but not for Anderson. “I got close enough to (my teammates) so if I had to get back in shape, they had no problem telling me and stuff, kind of behind closed doors so they wouldn’t really say it in front of everyone. I wanted to leave a legacy, I wanted my teammates to want something next year.” She had started the season knowing that it’d be her last. That being said, she wanted to accomplish three things: have a .350 batting average, a .450 on-base percentage and leave a lasting legacy on the way there. She checked off all of them.
Anderson was also featured in the May 12 issue of Sports Illustrated, “Faces in the Crowd.” This is rare for any athlete to be featured in a national sports magazine, especially someone from a struggling program. It not only brings the softball program success but adds to the campus as a whole. Garza knows what this means for the school. “It gives UCR a name. We have someone who’s nationally ranked.”
Anderson returns next year as a student and an assistant for the team, providing a fresh perspective to the girls. “I’m going to be around and definitely want to help the younger girls. I can say, ‘Hey you guys can do it!’ I know what it feels like and motivate them through it.” She is, in a way, passing the wisdom she gained from Garza onto them.
Anderson was a standout player on the field and a focused student off the field as well. “I really do like physics because I’m kind of a nerd,” the senior explained. Declaring as a physics major with a minor in mathematics may be intimidating for some, but not for Anderson. “I was definitely interested in it, which made it easy to go to class or go to the labs and stuff and I was eager to learn. It wasn’t a burden at any point so it was worth it.”
It may be impossible to replace the swift-footed Anderson for the years to come, but Anderson leaves the team with more than a single-season record. She leaves priceless inspiration for the UCR softball players of today and tomorrow. “I wanted to leave a legacy, I wanted my teammates to want something next year,” Anderson said. Garza is aware of what this could potentially do for the program. “What you hope is what they have witnessed as underclassmen, somebody goes, ‘I wanna be Dionne Anderson this year.”