One glance at the softball roster and you will notice a lot of student-athletes from the tri-state area and California. Fourteen of the 17 players come from New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, or California. One player is from Illinois and the other two are from…Kansas?
Junior infielders Morgan Balderas and Alex Holzman are in their first season in West Long Branch after successful junior college careers some 1,400 miles west. Balderas transferred from Highland Community College in Highland, Kansas, while Holzman came from Cowley County Community College in Arkansas City, Kansas. The two grew up together in Wichita, Kansas and played at high schools that were seven miles apart.
Head Coach Shannon Salsburg found out about Balderas through Emma Hill, who played for the Hawks from 2015-16 after coming from the same junior college. “Emma told me about Morgan and Morgan told me about Alex,” Salsburg said. “I watched both play thanks to live streams like ESPN3 pretty much every day after practice last year. I was watching their style of play; they seemed to be kids that were always in the middle of good things that happened for their team. They always played hard and never jogged or took any plays off. As I got on the phone with them I found out who they were and what was important to them. I felt that they would be a good fit.”
Both girls arrive in West Long Branch already having accumulated many accolades in their colligate careers. Balderas was an All-Conference, All-Region and All-America honoree at Highland Community College. She earned the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division II Marucci Elite Hitter Award for District E, which is awarded to the player with the highest batting average in the district, after hitting .428 as a sophomore. She also set the program single-season home run record as a freshman with 22 before becoming the all-time leader with 37.
“Morgan was an impact player for our program for two years,” said Heidi Jordan, who was Balderas’ head coach at Highland, in an email. “She was one of the biggest offensive threats in our conference and was underestimated on defense. You can never replace a player like Morgan, she will be in our record books for a long time. We are very proud of everything that she has accomplished and hope she can be as good for Monmouth as she was for us.”
Holzman also earned All-America, All-Region and All-Conference accolades while at Cowley County Community College and hit .540 as a sophomore to earn NJCAA Division II Marucci Elite Hitter honors for District II. She ended her two-year career with 31 home runs and 129 runs batted in. She was also a three-time Jayhawk Conference Player of the Week and earned Cowley County Athlete of the Month in April 2016.
“Alex is amongst the several top notch athletes that has come through our program here at Cowley,” said Jenny Hoyt, who was Holzman’s head coach at Cowley, in an email. “Her stats and awards define what she meant to this program. Alex did not only mean a lot to our softball program, but she holds a special place in my heart. I believe if you ask her she would go to war for myself and her teammates. That just shows you the dedication she had to this program and everyone involved in it.
“I am beyond excited about her journey at Monmouth. For her to be able to play on the coast doing something she loves just gives me chills because I know I am very lucky/blessed to have been a part of her softball career. She is a great individual who brings so much positive energy to the table, and I am beyond words to see her get an opportunity like this.”
Kansas and New Jersey are two very different places, so both players needed to adjust to a new life style on the field as well as off the field.
“I didn’t really know anything different than the Midwest,” Balderas said. “Out there it is very family oriented, everybody just knew everybody and we grew up competing against each other. You really get that family bond from everybody in Kansas. I was looking at a lot of southern and eastern schools. I knew that I wanted two years of experience somewhere else to get that life experience and play in a different softball culture.”
“It was definitely weird coming somewhere where there is absolutely no familiar faces,” Holzman added. “In Kansas, you will always run into somebody that you know or knows somebody that you know, and not having that here is honestly the weirdest thing.
“I would never come to New Jersey for any other reason, so when I found out this school was in New Jersey, my mom told me I had to jump on that because it was an opportunity that I would never have again.”
Holzman also noticed that people go about their everyday life differently here than in Kansas. “I noticed the people at the grocery store are different,” Holzman said. “I wouldn’t say they’re mean in Jersey, but they go about their day differently. People in Kansas go out of their way to be nice and it’s more natural for them to stop and talk if they don’t know you, where here it’s very fast paced. But it’s not rude and it was an easy adjustment.”
Balderas and Holzman are two of only four Hawks to start in every game so far this season. They are enjoying their time here and Salsburg likes what she has seen from them. “They have definitely fit in. Alex has a lot of energy and Morgan is a hard worker. It’s pretty simple to integrate when you have those things going for you and at the end of the day, they’re doing everything they can to help us win.”
When many people think about Kansas, the first thing that comes to mind is the Wizard of Oz. But Balderas notes that is far from the case. “For people who think Kansas is just land, like in the Wizard of Oz, it’s not,” Balderas said. “We actually live in a big city. We’re not all about tornadoes, Toto and the Wizard of Oz. I’ve never actually seen a tornado in my whole life.”
PHOTOS COURTESY of Karlee Sell