April 3, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Maybe it’s appropriate that in the 21-season history of Marshall softball, Shae Braxton is the first player to wear No. 44.
Think of Hank Aaron … Reggie Jackson … Willie McCovey …
Braxton wants to become the Thundering Herd’s home run king, and in the first half of the 2014 season the sophomore third baseman from Woodbridge, Va., is showing she just may have the power to do it.
Braxton has 10 homers in 33 games this season. The MU single-season record is 18, by catcher Rachel Folden in 2006. In fact, Folden also is Nos. 2 and 3 on that list, with 17 in 2008 and 14 in ’07. Folden, a former National Pro Fastpitch player, belted 58 in her stellar Herd career.
Braxton, the younger sister of Herd junior leftfielder Kristina Braxton, had six homers last season, when she was selected to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team.
And while Braxton still occupies the cleanup spot in which she hit late last season, she’s changed as a hitter, thanks in part to first-year Marshall assistant coach Kendall Fearn, who was a two-time all-Mountain West player at UNLV.
“My sister, Kristina, would say that when she went through her salad-eating phase, I was into my meat-eating phase,” Braxton said when asked why the power surge. “But seriously, the power comes from Coach (Kendall) Fearn really taking time out of her schedule to work with me on my swing and help me develop it. The changes she made with me have really helped me hit the long ball.”
What did she change?
“Being specific, she helped me use more of my legs and drive into the ball where last year I was a little more rotational as a hitter,” the 5-foot-7 Braxton said. “She’s taught me to take my bat and drive it through toward the pitcher, which helps me stay on the ball longer and gives me that extra oomph I need to hit it out.’
Braxton already has matched her 2013 RBI total of 27 (the team lead), and she’s not just playing long ball. With a .327 batting average, Braxton ranks second on Coach Shonda Stanton’s club to sophomore classmate -- and centerfielder and leadoff hitter – Kaelynn Greene
“Shae has tremendous power at the plate,” said Stanton, in her 15th season as Marshall’s coach. “As a hitter, your goal is to put the ball in play hard and Shae does an outstanding job of that by getting her barrel through the zone with great bat speed.
“She is a talented player and has the opportunity to chase a number of records with her offensive production. On the field, she is a strong leader and someone her teammates really respect.”
Braxton owns a handful of single-season and career records at C.D. Hylton High School in northern Virginia, including those for homers. She has a goal for another one -- soon.
“I always set goals before every season,” Braxton said. “I talked to my dad before this season and told him my goals for this year were to bat .330 for the season and break the all-time home run record of 18. I want 19.
“I put the batting average goal in there so I just don’t focus. RBIs are important to me, but I’m saving the goal there for next year.”
Braxton turned on the power in her junior year in high school and has been clearing the fences since then. She said extra hitting with teammate Savanah Webster – one of the only two seniors on the Herd team – has helped greatly, too, but added her 10 homers are not a surprise after she hit six last spring.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22 for me,” Braxton said. “Last year, after the season, I saw my numbers and people said they were good, but I know how much more I expect out of myself. This year, I’m OK with where I am, but I still know I’m a better hitter than I have been.
“I know where I am now, and I still can do so much better.”
After playing right field and being a designated hitter as a freshman, Braxton has moved to third to replace graduated all-conference veteran Jazmine Valle. The sophomore said the switch to a more difficult defensive spot hasn’t been an offensive distraction – if anything, it’s been the opposite.
“I think it’s actually been a lot easier this year,” Braxton said. “When you’re in the dugout (as a DH, not playing defense) last year I was really having fun, joking around with people. You see what’s going on, but it doesn’t really click until you’re on defense, see your pitcher throwing the ball.
“You get to see things from a different angle, see more of the strike zone, get a better idea of what works. Being a defensive player now, I see the ball better, concentrate more, and I think that carries over at the plate.”
Braxton said her individual success is gratifying, but she gets motivation from something else within the struggles of a young, rebuilding team (12-23) after a 2013 Conference UAA title and first NCAA regionals bid for the program.
“I think the thing that helps the most is how supportive we are of one another,” Braxton said. “Even though we haven’t had the best season, when you watch us and see how well we interact, you know we’re doing OK. When we see Kaelynn batting .400, it’s like, ‘Keep it going.’ With my home runs, it’s ‘Hey, keep it up.’
“We go out, have fun, play ball. If I strike out, they feel the same way about me as when I hit a home run. They’re all ready to support me. We enjoy one another’s company. We get along, and at the end of the day, it makes it easier to deal with when things aren’t going so well. With such a young team, it’s hard, but the tide starting to turn for us. We may be young, but we’ve still got it in us.”
Braxton, a physical education major, already has her post-college plans to initiate a softball side to Colangelo Baseball, an instructional school founded by former Major League outfielder Mike Colangelo in Prince William County, Va.
Before that, Braxton has her sights set on her goals for the Herd.
“I’m seeing the ball batter,” Braxton said when asked about her hopes for the rest of the 2014 season. “What I want to do is a better job at the plate. I have swung at a lot of pitches that aren’t strikes. I want to be more selective.
“My main focus is to identify the strike zone and let the balls go that aren’t in the zone. And I want to make pitchers pitch to me, instead of me letting them pretty much pitch their game.”