San Diego State University

SDSU softball team heads to NCAA tournament while its superstar leads conversation on mental health

The Aztecs best player opens up about thriving while dealing with anxiety

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Last year San Diego State’s softball team won the UCLA Regional, beat Utah in Game 1 of the Super Regional, and came one win shy of their first Women’s College World Series appearance. This year the Aztecs are headed back to Westwood on another roll.

SDSU won the Mountain West Conference regular season AND postseason tournament titles to earn another trip to the NCAA Tournament, again as the #3 seed in the UCLA bracket.

“I feel like this team just getting hot at the right time,” says 1st baseman Mac Barbara, the MWC Player of the Year. “Players are getting hot at the right time. Our pitchers are doing well. I'm just excited to see what we do during regionals.”

Barbara will have a big say in that.

“I would argue she is one of the most feared hitters in the country,” says Aztecs head coach Stacey Nuveman Deniz.

The numbers back that up. Barbara is in the nation’s Top-30 in on-base and slugging percentage. She crushed more than half of her team’s home runs. In her NCAA Tournament career, she has a .303 batting average. To the outside world Mac is a superstar.

But on the inside, under the intense lights of playoff games on national TV, there is so much more going on.

“I struggle with anxiety and it was a very anxious environment for me because I've never played in that big of a crowd before,” says Barbara of last year’s Super-Regional trip to Utah. “I literally was having panic attacks because I was like, I'm so scared. I don't want people to think I'm terrible, even though I know I'm not. But it's almost like you kind of worry about what the outside is going to think and I think that’s something that I have never experienced before. But now that I have, I feel I'm more equipped and more prepared to do it again this year.”

She’s learning to not just cope, but thrive by staying grounded in each moment.

“I'm just trying to be where my feet are, and if my feet are on the dirt, then my feet are on the dirt. If my feet are in my bedroom or in the classroom, then my feet are there,” says Barbara.

The approach is working. Over the last four games, all of them with a conference championship on the line, Mac has gone 8-for-12 with five home runs and, more importantly, a few dozen smiles. Over time, softball has provided her a sanctuary.

“I think when I'm on the field and I had a bad day, but I'm on the field, it honestly just makes me feel a lot better because at least I know my day wasn't as bad as I thought it was,” says Barbara. “There could have been a lot worse that went on. But I got to play softball, I got to be at practice, I got to be the field that day, I got to put on a uniform and I got to put on cleats. There are so many people that wish they could do that.”

Mac’s head coach could not be more proud of the courage she’s displaying and the leader she’s become.

“Her maturity as she's grown and really embraced our culture as a program of communication and vulnerability, and how there is great power and great strength in both of those things,” says Coach Deniz. “We've had a lot of hard conversations with her over the years. A lot of growth has happened. A lot of maturity has happened. And again, her honest approach with her struggles, I think, has not only been helpful for us to help her, but also for her to, be a spokesperson for all other young athletes that go through the challenges.”

Starting the conversation about mental health is one of the most important steps to living with it. After the MWC Tournament, Barbara … the Tournament MVP … was asked what was going right for her.

“I was like, honestly, I just want to tell people I've just been taking my anxiety meds. But they were like, oh, that's not appropriate. And I'm like, honestly, what is the problem with telling people that I'm on anxiety medication? Like, it's really not that big of a deal. I mean, I'm fine now. I'm living life. I'm having a good year. I mean, if you asked me in the beginning of the year, I'd say I was a little hard on myself. But now I'm just like, I'm okay. I'm doing fine. I’ve just been living life, I graduated from college, and it's been a good time.”

The Aztecs open the NCAA Tournament on Friday afternoon at 3:00 pm against 15th-ranked Virginia Tech. Mac Barbara’s feet will be on the dirt, focused on another chance to play a ballgame. Regardless of what happens on the scoreboard, that sounds like a win.

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