Better Know a Player of the Year: Big East’s Tess CitesFeatured
As part of a recurring series, D1Softball.com is taking a closer look at some of the returning players who earned conference pitcher or player of the year awards in 2023. This installment visiting Villanova senior outfielder Tess Cites, the reigning Big East Player of the Year, is presented free. Please consider subscribing to D1Softball to read the full series and support softball coverage.
Growing up, Tess Cites always found reason to question where she fit in the softball firmament. She wondered if she might be little more than a big fish in a small, and often frozen, pond.
It turned out she was correct that she wasn’t just like the vast majority of softball players. Certainly not like most Division I players, the sort who populate rosters throughout the Big East.
She was only wrong about what that conclusion meant about her.
The Big East Player of the Year proved last season that she wasn’t like most. She was better.
Despite an age gap, she measured up to the older sisters whose softball exploits inspired her to play. Despite her own doubts, she more than held her own on the elite travel team she joined her senior year in high school. And despite mixed results and a .231 average through her first two seasons in the Big East, she emerged as the most dynamic run producer on a team that took its accustomed place challenging for the conference title and postseason softball.
An all-around offensive threat, Cites was one of just 24 Division I players who stole double-digit bases and hit at least 15 doubles in 2023. Only nine of those players had more home runs than Cites’ seven, a list populated by the likes of Jayda Coleman and Kiley Naomi.
In a life spent wondering how good she can be, the senior has yet to find any limit to the answer.
“I suffered a lot from imposter syndrome,” Cites said of her softball path. “Even when I committed to a school as great as Villanova, being from a small town, it’s kind of like there’s always this voice in the back of your head telling you it’s a fluke or you don’t deserve it or you’re not supposed to be there. And so I think [what drove me] was me wanting to silence that voice in my head. I want to be the best player I can be for my team. I want to be able to contribute to the success of my team. I really just want to be the best player I could be.”
Cites grew up in Horseheads, New York. A small city in the state’s Southern Tier that is more than a little bit out of the way in the general scheme of things. In the softball scheme of things, when snow, sleet and stinging frozen foul balls were a regular feature of early-season games, it might as well be the other end of the earth. Early on, that meant she defined the softball universe by her sisters. Quite a few years younger than either, Cites sat in the stands with her mom watching them play or threw the ball on the side with her dad, mimicking her siblings.
Catherine, the eldest sibling, pitched. So, of course, Tess wanted to follow in her footsteps. Moving from the sidelines to local rec leagues and school teams, she continued as a two-way player all the way into high school. But by about her sophomore year, she decided that she needed to concentrate on her strengths if she wanted to attract the attention of college coaches.
Soon enough, playing for a club team coached by Audrey Rijo, mother of current Arkansas infielder Atalyia Rijo, Tess was a promising enough outfielder to catch the eye of Villanova coach—and Binghamton, New York, native—Bridget Orchard. Scholarship in place, Cites, those doubts in the back of her mind still not quieted, still wanted to test herself at a higher level. Before her senior year in high school, she joined a Philadelphia-area Newton Rock Gold travel team.
“When you’re from a smaller town, a lot of people kind of know your playing capabilities,” Cites said. “I joined this team and no one knew if I was good or not, no one knew how I played, no one knew how I communicated or anything like that.
“So it was like starting brand new, which is good, but at the same time scary.”
It also proved to be an excellent rehearsal for what was ahead. As a freshman at Villanova, she started 28 games for a team that reached the Tucson Regional. For an encore, she started 34 games for a team that played in the Orlando Regional. And even if her numbers didn’t jump off the page—even if she needed time to figure things out as a hitter—she belonged.
Look at her numbers from this past season, when she hit .378 with a .571 slugging percentage and .470 on-base percentage and drove in 45 runs in 59 starts, and it appears as if Cites made an enormous leap out of nowhere. And as a hitter, appearances aren’t entirely deceiving. She pressed too much her first two seasons. She doubted herself. But with each step, just as she had in earning a Division I opportunity and then again adapting to a travel ball challenge, she amassed evidence.
Each time she succeeded—and each time failure wasn’t the end of the world—she moved closer to an answer for that original question.
How good can I be?
“I definitely think softball is a game of learning how to deal with failure and learning how to overcome adversity,” Cites said. “Each year, I kind of learn a little bit more about myself.”
Something did suddenly click into place last season, but it had been in motion for years.
Never a batter who wants too much data—or really much of any scouting information that might distract her—Cites found a way to quiet her usually active mind. For her, focusing on her faith helped. She made prayer part of her pre-game ritual and listened to podcasts delving into spiritual matters.
“My mental approach at the plate was a huge change for me,” Cites said. “My first two years, it’s almost like I was nervous every time I went up to the plate. I was so scared of failure—what if I strike out or ground out or pop up. The truth is, the game is the game. It doesn’t change. If you just be cool, relax, have fun and get up there and hit the ball the way you know how—that’s how I play best. But that’s the game of softball. it’s such a spectrum of players and the way that they want to approach at-bats.”
In worrying about whether or not she was good enough, Cites discovered one of the truly redeeming virtues of athletic competition. In trying to find your limits as an athlete, you learn your almost unlimited capacity to push them farther than you ever thought possible. That helped make Cites the best player in the Big East a season ago.
Far more importantly, for someone intent on going to graduate school and becoming a physician assistant, it will serve her long after she takes her final swing.
“When you apply for a job or grad school and they look look at a Division I athlete, they know that this person has a hard work ethic, they’ve dealt with injury or adversity or things like that,” Cites said. “I’m so thankful that that’s what softball has given me these last three years because the lessons that I’ve learned in softball really do help find other passions outside softball.”
Inside the Numbers
- According to 6-4-3 Charts, Cites hit .538 with an .846 slugging percentage in 0-2 counts, compared to the team’s overall .151/.202 slash in such situations. She was also significantly better than the rest of the team in 1-2 and 3-2 counts.
- Cites’ modest batting averages her first two seasons belied her offensive contributions because she’s always had a good eye at the plate. She had more walks than hits (16-13) as a freshman and nearly matched that feat as a sophomore (20-21). She talked about the pride she’s always taken in long at-bats, making a pitcher work, especially with two strikes. But it’s also noteworthy, especially in light of her comments on her mental approach a season ago, that she saw a career-low 3.78 pitches per plate appearance in 2023. Taking pitches is only really useful in getting to the pitch you want to hit. It appears last season she found the ideal balance between patience and aggressiveness.