By Eric Wein

Arizona Daily Wildcat

rista Gomez had a seat in the dugout while the UA softball team took the field for most of last year.

Throughout her frustrating freshman year, she was used sparingly as a utility player.

There was little time to improve her skills and adjust to life in collegiate softball.

But when the College World Series rolled around in late May, an injury forced Gomez into the starting lineup. She responded with a stellar performance, earning her All-College World Series second baseman honors as the Wildcats went on to win the national title.

"It was very exciting," Gomez said. "Once I knew I was going to be in there, I said to myself, 'It's my time _ I need to get the job done and this is it. We're going for the whole thing.'"

Because Gomez hit .313 in the series and provided solid defense, she established herself as an impact player in Coach Mike Candrea's mind.

"She showed me a lot last year," Candrea said. "For a kid that struggled during the year and didn't get much playing time, she stepped in and did a great job. I had a lot of confidence in her."

Entering this season, sophomore Jenny Dalton got Candrea's nod at second. All three outfielders, however, graduated from last year's team and Candrea decided to try Gomez in left field.

Despite playing infield for most of her life, Gomez has adapted to the position and has not committed an error through 31 games there this season. The challenges remain because she continues to work on judging deep fly balls and where to throw in certain situations.

"I used to be really scared. Now, I've got the attitude of 'hit it to me,'" she said.

"I don't have the instincts to dive or know when that's what I have to do. I think of that too late. I don't have the instincts that I need to have, but they will come."

On a team that is tearing through its schedule and is destined to have several All-America selections at the end of the season, she is often overlooked.

Gomez, the only switch-hitter in the starting lineup, provides the Wildcats with the option of beating out a slap hit or swinging for extra bases from the ninth spot.

But she attributes her lack of recognition to the fact that she is the only starter who hasn't hit a home run this season. The Wildcats have hit an NCAA-record 60 this year.

"I try to overlook that," said Gomez, who carries a .310 batting average. "I'd love to hit one, but I can't go up to the plate trying because if I do, I won't get a hit."

The biggest influence on her hitting and development into a Division I player was her father, Bruce.

At the age of 9, Gomez was busy in gymnastics but he encouraged her to take up a team sport. She chose softball and he has offered his support ever since.

"When she first started, I didn't know what to expect," Bruce Gomez said.

"I encouraged her at times when she wasn't doing well with failure. There was a lot of disappointment. But before you know it, she started loving it and started performing at a higher level."

The elder Gomez showed up after high- school practices to throw her more batting practice. And during the summer, he coached her club teams. Even now, when she comes to her home in Sylmar, Calif., he will still throw her batting practice.

"He pushed me when I needed it at the time," Gomez said.

"There were times I wanted to quit and he made me work."

A fellow classmate sympathized with her during her freshman season and gave her some words of encouragement. UA wide receiver Richard Dice, who also was waiting his turn during his redshirt season in 1992, was in the same graduating class at Alemany High School in Mission Hills, Calif.

They told each other their time would come and not to give up.

"We've basically told each other our problems," said Dice, who figures to be a starter next season after becoming a key backup last year. "We helped each other through it and it's working out for both of us now."

She also has a memento that she uses for good luck.

When she trots out to left field every game, she carries one superstitious charm in her back pocket _ a Steve Sax baseball card.

Gomez has always admired Sax, the former Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman who became infamous for having trouble with the short throw to first. And like Gomez, Sax will begin this season as an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox. Her admiration for Sax began at a young age.

"At first, it was just his looks, I'll be honest. That made me watch him more," Gomez said.

"But then, it was basically his attitude. He was always throwing at the stands and he got a lot of bad comments on that, but he kept going, he kept plugging. He's just been thrown in in different places but he only wants to play. It's just like me. There's no spot in the infield for me, but that's fine with me. I want to play." Read Next Article