When Napa High senior Grace Guzman was in the eighth grade, she went on NCAA Division I softball recruiting visits to Oregon, Oklahoma, Stanford, Michigan and UCLA. Almost all offered full-ride scholarships.
After the last one, recalled her father, David, “I told her ‘Pick one; I’m tired of flying around.’”
For a girl who grew up in sunny California, one would think Michigan would have been the last choice with its bitterly cold winters.
But the Wolverines gave her the red-carpet treatment, letting her and her parents watch their nationally ranked football team – coached by Jim Harbaugh, who had coached the San Francisco 49ers to two Super Bowls before taking the Michigan helm in 2015 – play a sold-out home game from choice seats. The softball program had had the same head coach since 1985, Carol Hutchins, who guided Michigan to the Women’s College World Series for the 12th time in 25 years that 2016 season with a national championship in 2005.
Guzman gave the Wolverines a verbal commitment.
“It was the atmosphere and Coach Hutchins,” David Guzman said. “She knows a couple of the players (from travel ball), the stone buildings give it more of a college feel, and you’re sitting in the front row and Jim Harbaugh is in front of you and it’s 75 degrees in September.”
Her second choice at the time was UCLA, which had won a more recent national title in 2010 and had three-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Fernandez in her 17th year as assistant coach. What’s more, Guzman had visited UCLA countless times with parents David and Mary Beth because her brother, former Justin-Siena tennis standout Michael Guzman, was a student-athlete there before graduating in 2018. But Grace seemed to want to experience another part of the country, and Michigan was her top choice – until the school notified her last year that she hadn’t been accepted.
“UCLA was my No. 1 choice since I was probably in sixth grade, and then eighth grade came and I visited Michigan and fell in love with it – the football program, which gets 100,000 people at games, and their fan base,” she said. “But really, I was too young. When I didn’t make admissions, my (travel ball) coach called UCLA and said ‘Grace is still on the market.’ I gave them a call and they accepted me, and now I’m committed.”
Guzman was speaking after signing a national letter of intent to continue her softball career at UCLA, the reigning NCAA national champion, during a ceremony in the Napa High library on Thursday.
Head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, now in her 14th season at the UCLA helm, has guided the Bruins to the WCWS in Oklahoma City seven times, winning national titles in 2010 and 2019.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” Grace Guzman said of UCLA. “It’s closer to home, and they’re still ranked No. 1. I’ve known the coaches for five years now, and my brother went there and we visited him all the time, so it felt like home. The campus is beautiful, the weather is beautiful – I can be tan all year – and the coaches are wonderful. They’re super sweet and they’re always wanting to win. Lisa Fernandez is a legend.”
What’s more, her dad said, Guzman has already played travel ball with five of the Bruins – Briana Perez, Holly Azevedo, Alyssa Garcia, Sara Rusconi Vicinanza and Seneca Curo.
“She’s played with them two years already. They’re just older than her,” he said.
Guzman said those former travel teammates helped talk her into joining them in L.A.
“They did. It was really cute,” she said, adding that it was a “huge relief” to finally know where she’ll be playing after high school. “I’ve been looking forward to this day since I picked up the phone with UCLA. It’s always been my dream to finally sign and have everyone here supporting me. I remember when I was younger and looking up to the seniors who signed thinking ‘I want that to be me.’”
Guzman opened her fourth varsity season as Napa High’s starting center fielder on Saturday by singling to center field, stealing second base, and scoring the team’s first run of the season in a 9-6 win at Wood in the first game of a doubleheader.
She hit .436 for the Grizzlies as a freshman, .495 as a sophomore, and .471 last year.
“I’ve for sure gotten stronger since my freshman year,” she said. “I hit the ball a lot farther and I think I’ve gotten faster, so I want to break some of the records that I’ve made for myself. I want to have a better batting average. I’m shooting for .550.”
Napa High head coach Ron Walston helped coach Guzman’s first travel team, Napa Valley Express, after she started with the Napa Junior Girls Softball League.
“I met Grace when she was 8 years old,” he said during his speech at the ceremony. “I got a call from (coach) Jeff Lehman saying he had a travel team and a player in Napa Junior Girls that we had to get her on the team. He put her on the team and went to our first tournament.
“She had just started hitting from the left side about a month before and we put her in the leadoff spot. I gave her a bunt sign because she was really fast and everybody knew that. Her first pitch was (a foot above her head) and Grace, on her tiptoes, bunted the ball and it went straight up in the air. She took off and – I wish I had it on video – but I’m pretty sure she reached first base before the ball hit the ground. So we were pretty aware of the talent we had.”
Guzman went on to play travel ball for Concord-based KG Hitters, Sorcerer, All-American Sports Academy in Woodland, Athletics Mercados and, currently, Universal Fastpitch of Martinez.
Among the ceremony attendees were John Cortese and Kane Elliott of CTS Fitness & Performance, where Guzman has worked out almost year-round for five years, usually at least twice a week.
“I love CTS,” she said. “They’re always super easy to talk to. If you have an injury, they get it and they work around you. They always start where you’re at and meet you in the middle. I’ve gained like 10 pounds of muscle in three months from going there.”
Cortese said Napa High shortstop Caitlyn Newburn, the 2019 Napa County Player of the Year and a UCLA commit, also trains with CTS. He said strength is a key to success at the NCAA Division I level.
“It provides a good balance to what they’re doing with their skill training,” he said. “Our goal is just to enhance their skills by means of physical preparation, getting their body physically ready to play, and avoiding injury. If these kids want to go play at the next level, it’s important to be prepared because they’re going to do this there. Kane can attest to that. It’s good not only for strength, but she’s gotten faster and mentally tougher. She’s bought into trusting the process and not seeking instant gratification.”
Elliott, a 2013 Vintage High graduate who played football for the NCAA Division III program at the University of La Verne in Southern California, said athletes can get the right mindset at CTS by training like they will be on a daily basis in college.
“That (mindset) comes from going above and beyond, training outside of your sport,” Elliott said. “Being a sports performance coach for an athlete is very relational. They have to trust you to buy into what you put on a platter for them.”
Added Cortese, “There are going to be days where they, like anyone, don’t want to come to the gym. But you’ve got to be disciplined. You can’t always be motivated, so you’ve got to be disciplined enough to do what you need to do to get better and that’s what she’s going to experience at UCLA. She’s going to have to stay disciplined and focused and just punch the timecard, so to speak. She’s already very naturally athletic, but she’s worked really hard. You could just tell from a young age that she was going to be really good.”
Napa High’s opener was two days away, but if someone had told Walston that Guzman would single and score in her first-at bat after signing, he wouldn’t have been surprised. The same day his daughter Kimberlee signed last May with Holy Names University of Oakland, she went out and pitched a complete and had three hits in a win over Sonoma Valley.
“Once that (signing) is over, they can just go out and finish their senior year and just play not worry whether or not it’s going to happen,” the coach said. “Now that this is done, I expect Grace probably to have her best year. That’s hard to top, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she just exceeds everything she’s done so far. If she wants to hit .550, she can do it.”
Walston said Guzman raises the bar for the Grizzlies without having an ego because of her abilities.
“With all the attention she’s had in her softball career, it would be really easy to (have a big ego) and she never has. She’s exactly the opposite of that – probably the best teammate any of those girls have,” the coach said. “They strive to play at her level, and she’s a very gracious teammate and tries to bring them along with her. There are only so many chances you get to coach a player like that.
She’s an amazing young lady, and very humble. She’s very critical of herself, but she’s not a player that shows that she’s struggling or is down on herself. That’s another reason she’s headed where she is. She always has a smile on her face and works harder than ever.”
Guzman plans to major in communications like her brother, who also majored in political science and now works for Oracle.
“I want to point out two things about Grace that I think have really stood out to me in this process of becoming a Division I athlete,” Napa High Principal Monica Ready told ceremony attendees before addressing Guzman, “and that’s your resilience and your perseverance, and it’s paid off. We’re really proud of you and what your represent coming from our school – your academics, your character and your athleticism. It’s what’s made you into a Division I athlete, but it’s also representative of what we value at this school. So to have you go off to the Division I level is really something that we are proud of, and thankful of you for giving that back to your school.”
Athletic Director Darci Ward, Napa High’s girls basketball head coach from 2003 to 2019, noted before she spoke that Guzman doesn’t have to change her school colors.
“As an AD and coach, I always talk about how many kids get to play in college,” she said, turning to Guzman. “Less than 2 percent are going to make it to D-I, and you’re in that less-than-2 percent, so it’s really amazing because it doesn’t happen that often. UCLA is a really big, great school and to be at this level, it takes a ton of talent but it also takes a lot of hard work. I think you’ve put in all the quality time that you’ve needed to. I hope you have an amazing time there. We wish you the best.”
The only other seniors on this year’s Napa High squad, Abby Arata and Cali Olmstead, also spoke at the ceremony.
“We were really young when we started playing together (and) she’s always been a role model on and off the field,” Arata said. “She was a level ahead of everyone else and it was a goal to reach towards. I feel really lucky to have her not only as my best friend but also has a teammate because she always pushes everyone, including herself. I wish her the best of luck, even though she’s going to do perfectly fine.”
Added Olmstead, “Growing up, we were always striving to be like Grace. She’s an example of hard work. Most of us would hang out with friends on weekends, but Grace always had softball. She’s very patient, very kind, and I’m so proud of her and can’t wait to come visit.”
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