During the past four years, learning how to deal with adversity has completely changed Kayla Gonzales' perception of what it means to be a good teammate and person.
The senior Seattle U softball player from Escondido, Calif., had always thought she wanted to stay in California for college. However, toward the end of her prep career at San Pasqual High School, Gonzales was ready for something new.
Gonzales admits that her recruitment process was stressful.
The majority of her friends had signed their National Letter of Intent by junior year, so she was expecting to also sign during junior year. That didn't happen.
“I was recruited super late,” Gonzales said. By the spring of senior year of high school, “I had applied to all these other colleges thinking if I don't get (any offers), I'll just go to school.”
Luckily, she had also changed travel ball teams during her senior year and her coach was well-connected.
Without even seeing her play, the previous coach at Seattle U heard about her, trusted her travel ball coach's opinion of her and signed her.
“It was really cool because after I signed, he came out and watched me during the summer, and the first time he came and watched me, I hit a home run,” Gonzales said.
For Gonzales, the recruitment process didn't go the way she expected it would, but it turned out the way it should have, she said.
“It definitely was a crazy time. It was really just trusting in what was meant to be, so I was just really excited I was able to come here,” Gonzales said. “It just all ended up falling into place at the last minute.”
Coming to Seattle U as a freshman, Gonzales had an idea of what being a collegiate student-athlete would be like.
Much like her recruitment process, it ended up not being what she expected, but she has embraced every experience. Gonzales can say she's proud to be a Redhawk student-athlete.
Through the process and experience of being a collegiate student-athlete, Gonzales said she has learned a lot about herself, and wouldn't change that. The life lessons she's gained are things she will take with her when she graduates, and are ones that she's proud to have learned.
Gonzales has learned how to deal with failure, and how to stay within the process during those times by not being too results-oriented.
But that took time.
“Throughout travel ball or high school, most of us are the stars of our teams, and we don't have much competition, but then you come here and we're all on the same level for the most part,” Gonzales said. “Before college, I'm sure none of us really sat on the bench, and now for some of us, this is our first time experiencing that type of adversity. It's a lot to handle.”
Gonzales said it took her a year to embrace that adversity and understand how to handle it the right way – to understand that her role has shifted on the team.
During her freshman year, Gonzales started in right field. But then, she broke her finger and was out for the remainder of the season, which included all of conference play.
Then, during her sophomore year, she started most of the pre-season, but then was benched the rest of the year. This first time experiencing not being a star messed with her sense of self.
“I was frustrated mainly because at that point, I had wrapped up my entire identity in being a softball player, so I tied my performance to my worth as a person. When I was failing on the field, it consumed my life and it consumed my identity,” Gonzales said.
She admits that time got dark for her.
Gonzales truly believed that any shortcomings on the field meant that she was personally a failure.
“Even in practice, I was embarrassed for some reason to be around my team because I thought I was the worst player on the team,” Gonzales said. “I just really spiraled.”
But then there was a shift.
With a coaching change came a change in the culture of the program between her sophomore and junior years.
When head coach Geoff Hirai got to Seattle U, Gonzales said she bought into everything he was trying to do with the program. With a new coach and new year, she felt like she was given a clean slate.
Her role began to shift – she starts sometimes, she pinch-hits sometimes, and she embraces being given multiple roles.
The biggest thing she's learned is to not be selfish.
Once she came to that realization, it changed her entire perception.
“It's made me a better person, a better player, and it's definitely something I can take with me after my career here ends,” Gonzales said. “Before, being a starter was so much greater than helping the team out in other ways. Now, I'm just really learning to not get caught up in those titles, and what's the most important thing is helping out the team in whatever way I can.”
As she has become more selfless on the field, Gonzales has found a new identity for herself, and it's not completely wrapped up in being a softball player.
She's a student-athlete, a Christian and an older sister. All three of those are equally important to her.
“There's so much more to me than just being an athlete,” Gonzales said. “But I definitely had to come to that realization to get over hump of ‘oh my gosh if I don't do well today then I'm not a good person'. Coming to those terms was definitely something that needed to happen.”
The culture shift in the program has been impactful on Gonzales. She grew as the program grew, and it's something she is grateful for having in her life.
“There's definitely been a lot of growth that's happened these past four years, which I'm glad because if you weren't growing the past four years, then that's kind of a shame to look back on,” Gonzales said. “I'm really thankful for all the experiences – the good and bad – that I've gone through.”
Gonzales said the team has become more family-oriented, something she is happy to see finally happen.
“Really knowing what it means to be a family and have each other's backs and how that reflects on how we play has been really cool, and I've really enjoyed being part of that transition,” Gonzales said. “I'm looking forward to seeing where it leads because I feel like this program can be really successful.”
Gonzales wants what is best for her team, and through navigating adversity and successes, she is grateful to have stuck with her commitment these past four years and see the progression of the program she became a part of due largely to good timing and a great connection.
As she reflects on her time at Seattle U, and finishes up her final season on the softball team, there is a sense of peace and power in her voice when she begins to answer the question of how she wants to be remembered.
“I want to be remembered for helping shape the culture of this program,” Gonzales said.
She's seen a dramatic change since she's been part of the program, and the team is better for it. Now, Gonzales is leaving it in her Redhawk family's hands to continue building.