For some college athletes, their chosen school is everything that they've imagined.
But for others, their first team isn't always the right match.
Fourth-year art education student and club softball player Mary Esterak transferred twice before she was able to find a place where she felt like she belonged.
Esterak started playing softball when she was 5 years old and spent most of her childhood playing on a travel team. She went on to play for Blue Ridge High School’s softball team in Greer, South Carolina, where she tallied over 100 strikeouts in two seasons and had a career batting average of .500.
Her on-field efforts led to her signing a letter of intent to play at North Greenville University for the 2021 season. Esterak would play for the Crusaders for just one season before transferring to Columbia International University, where she helped the Rams reach its first NCCAA Softball World Series championship in 2022 while also leading the team with 64 strikeouts.
Esterak dedicated two years to the Rams, but she was once again looking for a change after her junior year.
“I went to one school my freshman year. It just wasn’t the right path for me — nothing that I expected, so I transferred to another school for two seasons," Esterak said. "It was kind of the same thing, a toxic environment. I just wanted to better myself for my mental health."
Esterak would be heading to her third school in three seasons, but this did not mean that her softball journey was over. Upon arriving at South Carolina in 2023, she discovered that the school had a club softball team that formed in 2021, allowing Esterak and other softball players to continue their careers at the non-competitive level.
“I just decided to hang up the cleats and come to USC, but little did I know that they had a club team here," Esterak said. "I was like, ‘I guess it's not over yet.’”
Since joining the team, Esterak has made a difference both at the plate and on the mound. She leads the team with 11 hits andhas a batting average of .367.
Carolina Club Softball is off to a 7-2 start this season and leads the South Atlantic Region North Conference. Esterak has struck out 29 batters over 36.1 innings pitched and has an ERA of 1.93.
Esterak had some experience hitting for Columbia International University, but she has been pitching for much longer, she said.
“I started pitching when I was 8 years old, so I’ve mainly been pitching basically my whole career,” Esterak said. “I’ve mainly just filled out my role the last three, four years now just a pitcher and hit. And of course I still play in the field sometimes, but it's just always my strength is pitching and hitting.”
Even with the success that Esterak has had this season and throughout her softball career, she said there are challenges that come with playing multiple positions, such as staying motivated and managing a heavier work load.
She has family members and coaches who push her to be the best pitcher, hitter and fielder that she can be, she said. But for Esterak, her own self-motivation is crucial for improving in each of these positions.
“It’s something that I have in my heart that I want to get better, and I want to get better in not just one aspect. And I think that’s just something that a player has to decide for themselves,” Esterak said. “For me, it's just some days I'm just like, 'Man, I don’t really feel like getting out of bed today. I’ll just do some drills for pitching.' But I just have to find ways to motivate myself to do both and give my 100%.”
Esterak has formed strong bonds with her new teammates, including fourth-year elementary education student Gabrielle Kirkman and first-year undeclared student Gracie Carlin.
“It’s just been a sisterhood. Me and Mary nonstop, we go out together, we go to bible study together — just, we're together. And this is a friendship that I never thought I would ever form in my life," Kirkman said. “It’s one of those college friendships that I know I’m going to take with me into life.”
Carlin said the team plans social events such as group dinners in order to build close relationships outside of softball.
“(We) try to coordinate parties and dinners,” Carlin said. “We go out, see each other outside of softball, just so we can have more of a relationship outside of softball.”
These off-field connections can be felt on the field, as well, as players will celebrate together after big plays and pick each other up when the team is struggling, Esterak said.
Esterak's impact on the club softball team isn't just limited to her on-field performance, though. After assisting an old high school coach with her team, she fell in love with helping young softball players with pitching and hitting drills, she said. Esterak now coaches the Carolina Thunder youth travel softball team.
Esterak said that she may not have enjoyed the start of her collegiate softball career, but she is now enjoying the benefits of having a close-knit and supportive group of teammates.
“When I came to this club team, everybody loved each other, and everybody wanted to be there.” Esterak said. “I have a team that has my back, so just being able to step out on that field with practices and at games, and even traveling together, has been one of the best memories that I’ve had being in college thus far.”