Feb. 5, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – “AHN-dee, AHN-dee, AHN-dee, AHN-dee” isn’t just a chant that might be heard this softball season at Marshall’s friendly confines of Dot Hicks Field.
It’s reality on Thundering Herd pitching, says 14th-year MU Coach Shonda Stanton.
You’ve heard of baseball’s 1948 Boston Braves adage, “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain?”
For the Herd in 2013 – at least early – it might be “Andi, Andi, and anyone handy.”
When Marshall opens the season Friday with an imposing doubleheader of ranked Michigan and USF back-to-back in the DeMarini Tournament in Tampa, Andi Williamson will be in the circle for both games.
That’s where you’ll find her a whole lot this season. The senior right-hander from Harts pitched the Herd into the Conference USA Tournament title game last spring. She led the league in wins (25), starts (37), appearances (45) and innings pitched (238).
Marshall has pitching issues, Stanton concedes, so when the coach is asked how many more innings Williamson could possibly throw, Stanton shrugs, smiles and says, “Double that?”
A young Herd team – “but really talented,” Stanton said – was picked to finish in the middle of the 2013 C-USA race (fifth of nine teams). And on the preseason all-conference team voted by coaches, Williamson was bypassed in favor of Tulsa ace Lacey Middlebrooks and UCF sophomore Mackenzie Audas.
Stanton said she wasn’t surprised Williamson wasn’t among the two pitchers on the preseason squad, which did include Herd senior third baseman Jazmine Valle. But the Marshall coach said the voting could help her team as it builds toward May.
“I thought she deserved it,” Stanton said. “I really thought, if you take Andi and look at what she did, in conference play on weekends, back-to-back games, pitching three games on a lot of weekends, no one else in the conference did that.
“If anything, I’m excited about it because Andi is an incredible warrior, and then when you put a chip on her shoulder, that extra motivation … I’ve seen so much growth from her in the last two months, as far as leadership.
“She’s a gal that we knew just wants the ball, just wants to throw, put the team on her back in that regard, but that said, she was one that sometimes didn’t want other distractions. Now, she’s one that’s motivating everybody. I’m excited about that because her teammates respect her. And you want your best players to be your best leaders. That’s what we’re getting out of her now.”
Williamson, 22, enters the season having just been named winner of the Dot Hicks Award – “It was such an honor for me, and I’m really honored to get it,” she said --that goes to Marshall’s top women student-athlete (for 2011-12). She said her 2012 numbers – 25-13 record, 1.50 ERA, 268 strikeouts – can be topped, but there’s another advancement she wants more.
“I expect to be better than I was last year,” Williamson responded when asked about goals. “We didn’t win the championship (losing to Tulsa, 3-2 in the C-USA final), so I guess we didn’t reach my main goal.
“We want to win at least 30 to 40 games, but our main goal is to win the Conference USA championship, making it into (NCAA) postseason play.
“The older girls we have, there’s a chip on our shoulder. We know what it’s like to be in that championship game and to lose by one run. It hurt. We have instilled in our newcomers. We’ll be a completely different team from February until May with all of the new people we have. So, I’m really anxious to see how we develop.”
As for her absence from the C-USA preseason star team, the daughter of former Herd hoops star Andy Paul Williamson said she will use the snub just as she uses the high heater.
“Really, I didn’t even know (when the team was announced),” Williamson said. “Jazmine actually informed me of it, but really, if anything, it just gave me more motivation. I’m actually thankful in a way because it makes me realize I’ve got a point to prove now, so I’ll just work harder.
“Everything works out for a reason and it’s going to give me more motivation. Our team, we’re picked fifth, they just gave us more motivation. Last year they picked us eighth and we finished second (tied for third in the C-USA regular season, at 15-9). We say we’re not getting the respect we deserve, but we’ve got to prove it.
“I’m not all that into individual awards. I’m just excited to show everyone what kind of team we can have this year. We worked really hard in summer, had a good fall season, and we’re ready to come out and hopefully show Michigan and USF what we’re all about this year.”
After a 36-21 finish last season that included nine wins over top 60 (RPI) teams, the Herd opens against the Wolverines, Nos. 13 and 15 in preseason polls (USA Softball and Fastpitch Coaches, respectively), then without a break – literally and figuratively – go against the Nos. 10 and 12 Bulls (same polls) on their home field.
Michigan lost in the round of 16 Super Regionals to eventual NCAA champ Alabama last spring. USF reached the College World Series. Then, after five games apiece the first three weekends in USF, Georgia Tech and UNC Greensboro events, the Herd comes home for its Marshall Invitational from March 1-3.
By then, Stanton may have a better grip on the Herd’s pitching prospects behind her ace. Freshman Halie Vance is no. 2 “right now,” Stanton said, and freshman Brittanie Fowler is back throwing after some arm issues.
Stanton said the Herd’s No. 2 last spring, Natalee Pulver, and another freshman signee, Lindsey Fadnek, who set a Tennessee state high school strikeout record, are out for the season due to injury. So, Stanton has freshmen Raquel Escareno (shortstop) and Katalin Lucas (catcher) working on pitching for added depth.
“I worked a lot with my dad during the summer, worked on being more precise with my different pitches on different counts, making sure had greater control of my pitches,” Williamson said. “And I worked very hard on the conditioning aspect of my game. I did a lot of extra conditioning work.
“My dad gives me the tough love. He tells me what I’m doing wrong, what I need to change. I’m the oldest of four siblings, and he coaches the others, too. He and my mom (Beth) have both supported me great all along. If not for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
If not for Williamson, the Herd would be even younger and in a rebuilding mode at the game’s most crucial position.
“Vance and Fowler are going to have to step up,” Stanton said. “Our goal is to keep Andi healthy enough for late in the season. And if we get behind, say, in the opening game, then we’ll pull Andi to save her. If it’s Game 2 and she didn’t start and we have a chance to win, she’s going to be on the mound.
“We’ll probably have to give up some games because of that. We just have to see how it goes … No question we’ll be a much better team in May than we are now.”
In regular-season C-USA play, the Herd must visit the four teams picked ahead of MU in the preseason poll (Tulsa, Houston, UCF, UAB) and gets home series against the bottom four selections.
Williamson helped Chapmanville High to state Class AA titles in 2007 and ’09 before going to Tennessee for a freshman season then transferring back home. The health and physical education major said she wants to become a teacher “mainly so that I can coach softball” when her Herd hurling is done.
“There are no regrets about (the C-USA preseason team),” Williamson said. “We need to lay it all on the line this year. If I have to pitch every game, then I will. We have Halie and Brittanie behind me, and they have come long way since they’ve gotten here and worked really hard.
“Pitching here, it’s really special when you see all of the support you get. I get a tremendous amount of support from so many people in the Huntington area, and my hometown. When I’m out at a basketball game and see people, it’s like they know me as a person, not just a softball player. There’s nothing like playing in your home state.”