Practice has ended on a late Tuesday afternoon, and GiOnna DiSalvatore is sitting on the bench outside the clubhouse of Easton Stadium, dabbling into pop culture while nibbling away at a Popsicle.
The senior third baseman of the defending champion UCLA softball team is a shameless Britney Spears fan, having followed the pop star ever since her childhood.
“She came out with a single … called “˜3′ ““ just the number,” said DiSalvatore, who happens to wear No. 3. “I freaked out. It was just meant to be; I need to meet her.”
It’s quickly apparent that in her four years at UCLA, DiSalvatore has learned to embrace and adapt to the Hollywood culture.
“Pretty much, I live the GTL life,” she said, a deadpan salute to MTV’s “The Jersey Shore.” “But I don’t really like doing the laundry part, so I say, “˜gym, tan, softball.'”
But anyone who has seen DiSalvatore perform and deliver time and time again on the field knows nonchalance is a non-factor.
According to coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, DiSalvatore, a Florida native, is arguably the one Bruin who has sacrificed the most to be a part of the team.
“GiOnna, first and foremost, was the earliest commit that we had at the time,” Inouye-Perez said. “And coming from Florida and being able to impact this program for four years says a lot about her as an individual.
“She’s going to go down as one of our most valuable players in that she has done an outstanding job of being very versatile throughout her four years.”
Indeed, that DiSalvatore decided to play softball on the opposite end of the country might very well be the first sacrifice bunt she has laid down as a Bruin. Make no mistake, though, separating from her family wasn’t easy, initially even more so for Johanna DiSalvatore.
“When she first wanted to (go to UCLA), for a month I told her, “˜No,'” GiOnna DiSalvatore’s mother said. “I would give her scenarios ““ if something happened to her, I couldn’t get to her right away. I just wanted her to be sure, that she was making the right decision.”
Eventually, DiSalvatore would receive her parents’ blessing, and hindsight shows that the move has paid dividends.
As a four-year starter, DiSalvatore has been the Bruins’ ultimate utility player. In her freshman season, she manned first base, and the following year, split time at first and in right field. She then spent her junior year playing at second base and now is stationed at third base in her senior season.
Each year, her batting average has never dipped below .300. Last year, DiSalvatore hit .391 en route to earning first-team All-American honors, not to mention winning a national championship. And this year, she officially etched her name into the program’s history book, hitting the 60th double of her career in an April 9 game against Stanford to become UCLA’s all-time doubles leader.
But just as valuable as the stats and the accolades has been DiSalvatore’s mere presence on the team. Whether she is breaking out into a dance to lighten up the clubhouse or amping the team as ringleader of the Bruins’ vintage pregame cheer, her persona has proven indispensable.
“Lots of people see GiOnna’s game face on the field, and she can get very serious,” junior left fielder Andrea Harrison said. “But people don’t get to see the goofy side of her. Whenever we’re on the road, we’ll make up dances, and she’s always dancing, always singing.”
The afternoon heat has subsided, and teammates have already filed toward the exit past DiSalvatore, still seated on the bench. She quietly dawdles with a now-bare Popsicle stick, reflecting back on her collegiate career.
It has certainly been a journey, all those road trips and postseason victories mixed in with the occasional longing for home.
“It’s up and down; when I’m stressing out, that’s when I just want to go home,” she said. “When I was a freshman, I didn’t really miss home that much, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve missed home more, which I thought was going to be the complete opposite.”
But it’s an interesting dynamic. As her last season hits its waning stretch and her return home becomes all the more imminent, the nostalgia will inevitably switch over to softball and to all those games she has played in the confines of Easton.
What she envisioned her career being when she got on the phone that one summer day and gave her word to Sue Enquist, the legendary UCLA coach who originally recruited her to play for the Bruins, has panned out to perfection, and then some.
“Playing here has been a dream,” DiSalvatore said. “Representing the four letters has been a huge honor. It goes by so fast, I try to tell the freshmen to enjoy every moment and soak it all in.”
For the time being, though, the 2011 season remains to be completed, with a title defense not yet complete.
And for the time being, there’s no doubt DiSalvatore will continue to deliver for her team, “GTS” and all.