TEMPE — Aleesia Sainz was all but born with a softball in her hand, and spent nearly her whole life playing the game in Arizona.

Sainz is in her freshman season with the University of South Dakota, and this week has been a homecoming tour for the former Casa Grande Union star.

The Coyotes are nearing the end of a 12-game stand in Arizona that has featured stops in Tucson, Tempe and Phoenix.

South Dakota began its Arizona road-trip at the Wildcat Invitational at the University of Arizona last week and then played one game against Arizona State on Tuesday.

The team will close out the trip with the Grand Canyon Invitational at Grand Canyon University which goes from Wednesday through Saturday.

“It’s surreal because I remember when I was a little girl, I took pictures in front of the U of A stadium and came out to ASU games, and now I’m here playing against them,” Sainz said. “It’s just very surreal for me.”

While the team held some early season practices in Mesa, this is Sainz’s first time back in Arizona competing in front of her friends and family.

“I see my family every day,” she said. “Casa Grande is not that far from [Tempe], so even when my parents have to work, my tios and tias will come out to support me, and it’s just very nice to see them after not being able to see them.”

She added the transition from the high school game to college has been more of a mental adjustment than a physical one.

“It’s just playing against the best of the best like (Arizona shortstop) Jessie Harper and (Arizona State catcher) Maddie Hackbarth,” Sainz said. “It’s just crazy for me, but you have to push that to the back of your mind because you have to be able to compete with them because you’re on the same field as them. I just try to think of them as somebody else, I don’t think of them as these all-stars in the softball world, I just think of them as another player that I’m just going to have to push past.”

Throughout her high school career, Sainz was a staple of the Cougars infield, with a .905 fielding percentage and just 32 errors in 338 chances. She posted a .498 batting average and had 74 extra base hits, 18 of which were home runs.

In 26 games for South Dakota this season, the freshman is batting .228 and has already knocked two out of the park. Her first home run came in her third at-bat as a Coyote on Feb. 8.

“It was crazy,” Sainz said. “It was good to get it out of the way because everybody is on the edge of wanting to hit that ball in college. After getting that one in college, it feels just amazing to be able to show myself that I can compete with these girls.”

So far college has been a good experience for Sainz, and although it took a little adjusting in the beginning, she is excited for what the rest of the season holds once this homecoming road trip ends Saturday against GCU in Phoenix.

“It’s been fun,” she said. “It’s been a really good experience. It’s been going by like a breeze, like it’s gone really fast for me ... I love it. It was hard the first two weeks, I think I cried like every night, but now when I’m away from South Dakota, it’s like that’s my home now, like when I’m away I can’t wait to go back.”

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Maria Vasquez is a reporter covering Eloy, Arizona City and sports. She can be reached at mvasquez@pinalcentral.com.

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