Feb. 5, 2014
By CHRIS DICKERSON
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- After such a successful 2013 season, it would be easy for the Marshall softball program to lean back and bask in the glory.
But for coach Shonda Stanton and her 2014 squad, there’s no looking back. In fact, if this team were a car, the rearview mirrors would be ripped off.
“You’re only as good as your next pitch,” Stanton said. “But still, it’s good to be able to build off of what we have accomplished with this program.”
What the Thundering Herd did last year was monumental.
Marshall won the Conference USA Tournament title last season, and advanced to the NCAA regionals in Lexington, Ky. The Herd finished with a 36-22 record (13-10 C-USA) and had a 14-game winning streak.
Gone from that team are six seniors – including pitching ace Andi Williamson -- and five starters. Still, the Herd recently was ranked third in the C-USA preseason coaches’ poll behind 2013 regular-season champion UAB and No. 2 Tulsa.
“Basically, this is a new team we have this season,” said Stanton, who is starting her 15th season with the Herd. “And it’s really a completely new conference. There are so many unknowns.
“So many variables have changed. We have teams from three or four conferences in the league now. We only have four upperclassmen returning, and only two seniors.
"We graduated a number of key starters from our NCAA run last spring, so it will be exciting to see which players will step up for us this season. We return only three everyday starters from a year ago, so again we really look forward to see who develops and becomes a significant and consistent performer."
And while she said it was nice to be picked third in the preseason poll, Stanton knows it means nothing if the team doesn’t perform on the field.
“There are unbalanced schedules simply based on us having so many teams in the conference,” she said. “Everyone’s playing a different schedule. The only repeat teams are on our schedule are East Carolina and Tulsa. Other than that, everything is new.”
As usual, Stanton has made sure the regular-season schedule is stocked with quality opponents. The Herd will face five teams that participated in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. On the 56-game schedule, there are 18 home games and four non-conference tournaments in the first month of the season.
Other than the familiar East Carolina and Tulsa conference opponents, Marshall will face five of the seven new softball C-USA members -- Charlotte, FIU, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and North Texas.
Marshall also plays four Southeastern Conference teams, including a March 11 home date with Kentucky. The Herd will open the season in the Tiger Invitational at Auburn with a doubleheader on Valentine’s Day, facing Western Illinois and the host Tigers.
The Herd will try to defend its C-USA Tournament title May 9-11 in Boca Raton, Fla.
"Another change we look forward to is competing against and learning about unfamiliar opponents in C-USA and building new rivalries within this great conference," Stanton said. "Playing almost 40 games on the road can be a challenge for such a young squad, but one we welcome with the opportunity to compete in warmer weather late February to early March and beautiful facilities throughout the south.
“We always believe in scheduling up. We think we were so successful in regionals last season because of the schedule we played in the regular season.”
Stanton said her four upperclassmen – seniors Taylor Winton and Savanah Webster as well as juniors Kristina Braxton and Emileigh Cooper – have to become leaders in a hurry.
"With only four upperclassmen, we will need each of them to quickly establish their presence on the field," she said, noting that two sophomores – Shaelynn Braxton and Kaelynn Greene – recently were named to the all-conference preseason team.
Greene, an outfielder, led the Herd in hitting last season with a .354 average, a team-leading 28 hits and 13-for-15 on steals. Braxton, a utility pick, had a team-high five homers and 18 RBI in conference action.
Winton, one of the two seniors, said she is eager to get her final campaign started.
“It’s definitely nerve-racking coming to the end of a four-year journey here at Marshall,” said the catcher from Federal Way, Wash. “Really, it’s a 12-year journey of playing ball for me. But it’s exciting. It’s now my time to lead the team and be the one who others come to.
“I’ve always been good at that. It’s pressure, but I love that pressure.”
Last year, Winton started 17 games behind the plate and boasted a .984 fielding percentage.
“Even in the fall, when we first started, all of the responsibility kicked in at once. I’m the only person on the team who has been here for four years. So, on day one, I started taking charge in all of these areas because of the experience I’ve had here and the confidence I’ve learned.”
Winton, who is on track to graduate in May with a degree in sociology, said she’s optimistic about this young team.
“It is nice to have all these fresh faces in here,” she said. “There are two new coaches as well. So, you get new sets of eyes and a new perspective on the game itself. These girls have brought that to the table. It helps having fresh players. They all bring something special to the table. It’s nice having nine new people who have brought so much already.
“And it’s nice to be able to build upon what we’ve done here. Our reputation finally is showing what kind of team we are. It’s all about keeping things going now, keep that momentum flowing.”
Winton said she’s asked a lot about how a girl from the Seattle area ended up at Marshall.
“I was at a tournament in Las Vegas going into my senior year,” she said. “It was my birthday weekend, and I had four home runs. I was lucky enough to have Coach Stanton there. She contacted me soon after that, and she saw me a few other times.
“It was just one of those lucky moments.”
Winton said she likes the “culture shock” of differences between her home and the Tri-State.
“It never gets old going back and forth with all of the differences,” she said. “This is a college town. There’s nothing like that there. That’s what so awesome about it. I love what the softball program is about. I love the tradition of the program and the school.”
The Herd’s annual Diamond Club Banquet is set Friday with keynote speaker Monica Abbott. The 2013 team will be recognized at the banquet, which will be followed by a Saturday pitching clinic where Abbott, former Herd star and NPF Rookie of the year Williamson and Chanda Bell -- Marshall’s new pitching coach – will lead the instruction.
This story first appeared in this week’s issue of the Herd Insider.