SALINAS — Natalia Martinez was mesmerized the moment her eyes caught a glimpse of the Portland State campus as a 12-year-old playing in a summer softball tournament.
Five years later, the call she had dreamt about arrived, albeit slightly later than perhaps the Salinas High slugger could have imagined.
The pandemic has hurt and slowed the recruiting process for all sports. Yet, when a video of Martinez landed on the desk of Portland State softball coach Meadow McWhorter last month, a Zoom meeting ensued.
“She called and told me she just watched a video of me,” Martinez said. “She said her staff liked what they saw. Meadow followed up with a couple of more Zoom calls.”
Martinez didn’t need a virtual recruiting visit to know what she already wanted when an offer ensued. Her vision became a reality after committing to play softball for the Vikings on a full-ride scholarship.
“You know when you just kind of get that feeling?” Martinez said. “It feels like home. I just felt like the coaches care about their student-athletes. Your emotion and personal state is taken into consideration.”
While the pandemic whipped out virtually her entire junior year at Salinas, Martinez hit .560 in the heart of the Cowboys batting order as a sophomore in 2019 with five homers.
Despite being a power hitter, the 5-foot-8 Martinez struck out just five times in over 100 at-bats during the 2019 season.
“It’s been frustrating and upsetting this year,” the 17-year-old Martinez said. “It’s my senior year. It feels like we have not finished what we started. I’m holding out hope we have some sort of spring.”
Martinez, who was recruited as a third baseman for Portland State, has kept her skills sharp by playing on a travel team during the pandemic when permitted.
The sister of former Palma football and track standout and current University of San Diego tailback Emilio Martinez, all of her competition has come out of state.
“When we were able to find tournaments, we played in other states like Texas and Arizona,” Martinez said. “We wore masks in the tournaments. And we did make a lot of videos.”
One of the videos landed into the hands of Portland State, thanks to California Suncats travel coach James Jimenez.
“He got my name out there,” Martinez said.
Not that Martinez needed any reassurances in her choice, but she did speak to current Portland State Vikings players Logan Riggenbach and Shea Garcia, both of whom she has played with on travel teams.
“Both echoed what I felt in that it feels like home,” Martinez said. “They love the environment and the direction of the program.”
Riggenbach was a member of The Herald’s All-County softball team at Notre Dame, while Garcia played at Aptos. And former Santa Catalina standout Marissa Bruno is a senior at Portland State.
In addition to picking their brains, Martinez has bent the ear of her older brother Emilio, who begins his senior season at San Diego.
“Emilio told me don’t be shocked when you get there,” Martinez said. “It will be hard to adapt the first couple of months. Make sure you get along with the coach. That’s kind of your second set of parents.”
Recruited himself two decades earlier as a pitcher out of Alisal and Hartnell College, Martinez’s father Miguel said the process has changed dramatically.
There were no traveling baseball teams in the late 1990s. Exposure was limited. Attention today comes from athletes traveling and playing in tournaments all summer in front of college recruiters.
“When I played, it was word of mouth or they’d come see you live,” Miguel Martinez said. “The venue with being able to be recruited is significant. But you still have to prove yourself.”
While Martinez awaits her letter of intent, she still has to pinch herself from time to time to realize this is real, that her school of choice has come into focus.
“It’s taken me a little bit to realize that it’s real and it’s actually happening,” Martinez said.
Having been through the process as a former athlete and a parent of two college-bound kids, her father called it a bag of emotions from excitement to bittersweet.
“You want to provide as much as possible for your kids,” Miguel Martinez said. “This is our little girl. I told Natalia the biggest part is you have to feel comfortable with where you are at. If you’re not, it’s a lot more difficult. I have no doubt she will succeed.”
All Martinez hopes for now is an opportunity to get on the field for Salinas and finish her prep career playing with her friends.
The Salinas Union High School District has proposed resuming sports within the district. Softball is a sport in the state’s red COVID-19 reopening tier. Monterey County remains in the strictest tier, purple.
“High school is more fun time,” Martinez said. “It’s a time to relax and be with your friends. I didn’t like how it ended last year. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to be together one last time.”
Contributed by local news sources