Perhaps it was their underdog mentality or the overall chemistry of the team, but in a record-breaking season in which they have amassed a school-record 35 wins and maintained the highest batting average in Division I history, there is no question that this has been a season to remember for the UC Riverside softball team. A team that was ranked dead last in the Big West coaches’ preseason poll is now on pace to finish first in the Big West. And while I first must emphasize the age-old cliche that that there is no “I” in “team” — truly this season, unlike any other, has been a testament to the collective willpower of the aforementioned team — there certainly is one player at the forefront of their unprecedented success: pitcher Chelsea Ponce.

Chelsea’s softball story began in San Bernardino, at Cajon High School, a higher-profile school that consistently produces D-I athletes. On the softball field, Chelsea was a star, willing her team to victories just as she is now. Yet due to unforeseen circumstances Chelsea was forced to attend Riverside Community College post-high school. At RCC, she continued to excel as an athlete, posting a remarkable average ERA of 1.70 over two years in the midst of a total record of 45-7. Her phenomenal play led her to be recruited by UC Riverside softball coach Linda Garza, and after redshirting in 2014, Ponce had a dominant Division I debut for UCR, throwing a two-hitter in a performance Garza deemed “untouchable.”

“I believe I belong with the best,” Chelsea gleamed when asked how she felt about playing Division I ball for the first time. And as Ponce continues to develop a list of accolades on the season that are unrivaled — four Big West Softball Pitcher of the Week awards, conference leader in wins on the season (26, good for sixth in the nation) and ERA (1.35), along with throwing the program’s first Division I no-hitter — she has made many more believers of this assertion.

Chelsea deemed the entire process as “rewarding,” yet emphasized the reward is not just for herself but for the progress the team has made throughout the season. Now she looks to push this program forward as a whole, saying, “I want to set a foundation for UCR … set a precedent for the future.” If this was her primary goal heading into the season, certainly it can be deemed a success, as she has been the unquestioned leader of one of the most successful softball teams in the history of UC Riverside sports.

Yet like most success stories, Ponce has met her fair share of struggles.

As is often said, success is not given, it is earned. And Chelsea is one who has had to earn it in every aspect of her life. She earns her success as an athlete, as a student and as a wife.

Most of all, though, she earns it as a mother.  

Chelsea, an RCC transfer who is now the best pitcher in the Big West and unquestioned leader of one of the country’s hottest teams, carries the additional responsibility of caring for a child born during her two-year stint at Riverside City College.

It is her commitment to her daughter and family that keeps her grounded. Knowing that she has to come home every day and be a mother is a responsibility more trying and worthwhile than anything she has accomplished on the softball field. As Ponce deemed it, having her child in the middle of her college career has been a “blessing in disguise” and it has continued to keep her driven throughout a successful yet emotionally tiring season.

As many of you may be wondering, what’s next? As it seems, there are not too many opportunities to play beyond the college level in the sport of softball. However, Chelsea has her eyes set beyond the field, with aspirations of someday becoming a social worker. More specifically, she wants to help children who have been in troubled homes and hopes to be a mentor who helps guide them through their troubled times.

This is just more of the same from Chelsea whose innate love and care always shines through her outward confidence.

UC Riverside softball in itself is a program that Garza defined as “blue collar,” and Ponce is the ideal face of the team, as someone who excels in softball and in life with the principles of hard work and commitment. Chelsea Ponce is many things: a mother, an athlete, a student and a wife; most of all, though, she serves as an inspiration to those on her team, the university and within our community. And she, just like this team, cannot be ignored.