First-base phenom Ashley Ruiz helped the Colorado State University softball team clinch the 2019 Mountain West conference championship in style with a 3-run homer in top of the seventh inning of game two of a three-game series versus Boise State on May 4. But the come-from-behind win didn’t just secure a title, it fulfilled a promise the players and coaches made to each other to honor the program’s past and the alumni who built the foundation for their success.
Embodied by the hashtag #25Strong, this promise acknowledges the historical significance of the program’s reinstatement 25 years ago. The University had cut the sport in 1992 due to budget constraints related to reduced state funding, but players and parents sued, citing violations of Title IX gender-equity requirements. Signed into federal law in 1972, Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in education. The claimants won in U.S. District Court a year later.
Jen Buford (B.A, ’99) joined the reincarnated team in 1994 and was among a group of “mostly Colorado kids” who elevated the program to national stature. “CSU reminded me of home,” says the Grand Junction native. “It was close enough that my parents could come to games, but far enough away for me to be independent.”
There were plenty of challenges along the way. She remembers practicing next to corn fields near the Budweiser plant north of Fort Collins for two years before CSU built softball facilities just south of Moby Arena. Away games to schools such as Fresno State, which boasted an actual stadium, highlighted those differences. And the pressure associated with reinstatement was an ever-present motivator in the back of the players’ minds.
Led by Head Coach Candi Letts and assistant coach Dedeann Pendleton-Helm, the team improved each year: 22-30 in 1994, 24-19 in 1995, and 31-22 in 1996, when Buford was named second-team All-WAC (CSU competed in the Western Athletic Conference from 1991-92 and 1994-2000).
The following year, that stalwart group of Colorado kids led the team to its most successful season in school history, a record that still stands.
“We won a lot of games early in the season, but I’ll never forget beating ASU in a tournament in San Jose,” recalls Buford. “That’s when we realized we were very good.”
CSU won an astounding 51 games and came within one game of advancing to the College World Series. Buford was named second-team All-American, first-team All-Region, first team All-WAC, and team MVP.
That success opened up an opportunity to play professional softball for the Carolina Diamonds for a season before she returned to CSU to complete her degree. And that’s when she made one of the most important decisions of her life.
CSU athletes were encouraged to hold regular study sessions. During one of these sessions, women’s basketball star Becky Hammon said the team needed another point guard and encouraged Buford to try out as a walk-on.
Buford had played in high school, but knew she was more talented at softball than basketball. She remembers sitting at the foot of the stairs leading to Coach Tom Collen’s office in Moby, wondering if she should take the chance. She knew it was a long-shot, but then she pictured herself in the stands at one of the upcoming games, as a spectator. “I knew I’d always regret it,” she says, “if I didn’t at least try.”
Coach Collen gave her that chance and allowed her to start working out with the team. By the time the walk-on tryouts began, she had already proven herself. Coach Collen pulled her aside during a workout and told her she didn’t have to continue. She had made the team.
Buford played in 25 games during a season that would also go down in the record books as the most successful in school history. The team made it to the NCAA Sweet 16 that year and Becky Hammon would go on to become one of CSU’s most celebrated athletes of all time.
After graduation, Buford resumed her professional softball career in North Carolina and then in Florida, but always wanted to come back to Fort Collins.
She did come back, but getting a job other than coaching youth softball proved difficult. “I applied for a job reading meters for the City of Loveland and was told I wasn’t qualified,” she jokes. “It’s a common problem for Division 1 college athletes. Their qualifications aren’t necessarily reflected on their resumes.”
Eventually, CSU athletics supporter Loren Maxey gave her an opportunity to work in truck and trailer sales, and she was able to prove herself once again. Later, she moved into banking, where she worked her way up to become vice president and branch manager of two Chase Bank locations in Fort Collins.
Never forgetting the impact one diehard Ram can have on another’s life and career, Buford stayed connected to CSU and the softball program, conveying the message to senior players that the values and skills learned in collegiate sports – teamwork, dedication, goal setting, time management – correlate directly to the requirements of the professional world. By sharing her personal story, she has helped these players prepare for that transition themselves. And it’s not just talk. She tries to hire athletes and military veterans – who struggle with the same disconnect between skills and resume – whenever possible.
Inducted into the Colorado State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010, Buford embodies the meaning behind #25Strong and is rooting for the current players and coaches, including her former coach, Dedeann Pendleton-Helm, who rejoined the CSU staff in 2006 after a stint at Ole Miss. “Jen Fisher and all of the other coaches have built a good culture that has led to this year’s success. I hope they break our record. Because if they do, that means they went to the College World Series.”
Last Sunday, the team watched the NCAA softball tournament selection show together and learned they will face Auburn in the Tucson Regional on Friday, May 17. “They will remember this experience for the rest of their lives,” says Buford, who was present for two tournament selection shows, “no matter how the season ends.” And every one of them will be able to say that they gave it all in a valiant effort.