BOGACZYK: Stanton Has Herd Softball Poised for Much More
The Word on the Herd-Jan. 23, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Move over, Cam Henderson.
As Marshall begins the 2015 softball season in two weeks at Charleston, S.C., Thundering Herd Coach Shonda Stanton already has passed the legendary Henderson's record for most victories by a Marshall coach in any sport.
Stanton, beginning her 16th season guiding the Herd, begins the season with 453 MU wins. She passed Henderson (basketball, football, baseball) and his 436 victories with a triumph in the nightcap of a Dot Hicks Field doubleheader against Radford last April 2.
What interests Stanton, however, is not so much where she's been, but where her program could be going ... and suffice it to say that 453 figures to grow considerably in the coming seasons.
The 2015 Herd returns seven starters among 14 letter winners from the third straight team to reach the Conference USA Tournament championship game. The Herd won the 2013 title and a first NCAA regional bid.
Marshall begins the season with only two seniors on the roster, and three players selected on the All-C-USA Preseason Team - third baseman Shaelynn Braxton and outfielders Kaelynn Greene and Morgan Zerkle - are underclassmen. Top pitcher Jordan Dixon is a sophomore.
"We've got a lot of competition within the team, which always really helps," said Stanton, who displayed her opinion of the 2015 Herd in her vote in the C-USA Preseason Coaches' Poll. Marshall finished fourth in the 12-team poll behind FIU, UAB and Florida Atlantic.
"I picked our team first," said Stanton, who was the only coach to do that. "It doesn't mean anything in the big scheme of things. We have to let our performance speak for itself, but what it means is I'm very confident in this team and I wanted to show them that confidence. That's how I feel about this group."
Marshall is 100-74 in the last three seasons. Stanton, who coached one season at IUPUI before getting the Herd job in 1999-2000, has 480 career wins. Her 500th should come not too deep into the season.
So, after reaching three C-USA title games in succession, is there more pressure on the Herd to make the final in that eight-team bracket again, or even win another NCAA berth?
"Really, it's more of an expectation," said Stanton, whose 2015 roster includes seven freshmen and five sophomores. "In 15 seasons been here, five times we've been in the championship game (Mid-American 2005, C-USA in 2006, '12, '13, `14), so one-third of the seasons we've been in the conference final.
"So, if you don't get there, it's very disappointing. What's exciting is our kids now have that expectation, too. As a coach, it's easy to have great expectations, but when your student-athletes have that expectation, that's when your program really starts to change and you start to sustain a level of success consistently.
"And so your juniors here now won it as freshmen and been back to the title game as sophomores. Our two seniors (outfielders Kristina Braxton and Emileigh Cooper), the only thing they know is reaching the championship game. So, how can they not expect that?"
However, Stanton and assistants Chanda Bell and Kendall Fearn are tinkering with success. Zerkle moves from shortstop to center, with Greene sliding from center to left. In the infield, Stanton will employ a platoon of sorts.
Freshman Elicia D'Orazio - she played for the Puerto Rican National Team last summer; Stanton said the infielder has eye-opening skills - will play second most games with Shae Braxton at third. Freshman Kylie Howard was a four-time West Virginia Class AAA All-State first team pick who transferred from WVU (which doesn't have a softball program). Howard will play short.
Junior Katalin Lucas will catch most games, but when freshman Taylor McCord goes behind the plate, Lucas moves to short. At first, sophomore Rebecca Myslenski - she missed last season due to injury - moves from the middle infield and will share time with Alyssa Woodrum.
As for the outfield, Zerkle and Greene would seem to be staples, but Stanton says "all six of our outfielders can play and start, and as coaches we're really going to have to manage that well, communicate and keep the kids ready for when they get opportunities.
The other returning starters are right fielder Raquel Escareno - "a great arm," Stanton said - and Dixon in the circle.
"Behind Dixon, we're got Brittanie Fowler, who had some bumps and bruises and obviously had limited action last year," Stanton said. "We just need her to come in and pitch. Our No. 2 could be Marissa Bethke, a freshman. She's talented, and the quicker she finds the strike zone, the sooner we'll realize that second lineup. It's no different than Jordan last year as a freshman. She was 20-21, with 245 strikeouts, but look at her walks (126). It's an adjustment."
Stanton has tailored the Herd schedule in hopes of building momentum and confidence in events the first two weekends at College of Charleston and East Carolina, before going into tougher fields at USF and South Carolina the following two weekends. Two ranked teams - Auburn and South Alabama - are in those fields.
Those opening two weekends give us an opportunity to get some wins under our belts and still be challenged," Stanton said. "Those fields may not have the Power 5 conference teams, but it will still be challenging ... It's important we start fast with this group to solidify that confidence that we've talked about, that we start off with the opportunity get wins."
The Herd has 20 home games scheduled at Dot Hicks Field, with a March 14 opening C-USA doubleheader against Western Kentucky.
The Herd trio on the C-USA Preseason team tied FAU for the most on the 16-player list. The conference will play softball in divisions this season, too, with the Herd in the stronger East with FIU, FAU, Western, Charlotte and Middle Tennessee (Rice and Old dominion don't have softball programs).
Marshall already has signed six players for 2015-16, too. Those title-game appearances and an NCAA regional trip attract better reception in prospecting for talent.
"When you're on TV (in the C-USA title game), that always draws people," Stanton said. "With the exception of the ("We Are Marshall") movie, those TV appearances do the most to get the name out there. And it helps to have the football team in the Top 25 as well.
"All those things turn heads and get people to take a look. It's to the point where I had a kid call me this past week from out west. She really wanted to come to our program but financially we weren't in a position to go after her, but she's finding money to make it work and we're going to exceed our numbers.
"We only graduate two and we're bringing in eight, I think, because we don't want to turn away kids who want to be part of our program.
"It's nice to have good kids think of us like that."