MCGILL: Braxton Buoys @HerdSB In Return With Bat, Leadership
The Word on the Herd -- May 3, 2017
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The day Shaelynn Braxton wanted to leave a season of collegiate eligibility on the table and walk away from the Marshall University softball program, she did not meet any resistance from the program’s head coach, Shonda Stanton.
“I learned long ago that these student-athletes are young people who are going to make choices every day, and we have to give them the opportunity to have their choices and to own their choices,” Stanton said. “I’ve always been a firm believer that we never really change anyone who comes through our program, but we influence them heavily. You hope at the end of the day that you’ve had enough influence that their values line up with the program’s values.
“I think, at the time, she made the right decision for her and where she was.”
At the time, Braxton had just completed her junior season for the Thundering Herd. She’d recorded consecutive 50-RBI seasons with back-to-back appearances on the Conference USA all-conference second team. The 16 home runs Braxton hit as a sophomore still rank as the third most in a single season. Her 57 RBIs as a sophomore rank second in program history, while the 56 she drove in before walking away from the sport is tied for the third most at MU.
So why, following the 2015 season, did Braxton head back to her hometown of Woodbridge, Virginia, and begin her coaching career at C.D. Hylton High School?
“When I left here I didn’t feel like softball was fun anymore,” Braxton said. “I didn’t want to play. I hated the game and was done with it.”
This, however, is a story with a happy ending, even if the final chapter still needs to be written. Braxton is a 5-foot-7 senior third baseman for Marshall. The Thundering Herd is ranked No. 23 nationally and is 38-7 overall, 18-3 in C-USA and 13-0 at home thanks to, in no small part, Braxton’s return.
Marshall hosts UAB for a three-game series starting Friday at 2 p.m. A doubleheader is scheduled to conclude the series Saturday, with games scheduled at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. It is Braxton’s Senior Day two years after she was certain she wanted no part of these festivities.
“It’s just such a blessing,” she added. “Me being home last year is what I needed to be focused and ready. I understand ball in a different way.”
During her time away from the program, Braxton volunteered at her high school alma mater, C.D. Hylton, where she holds several school softball records and was a two-time first team all-state selection.
That experience, Braxton confessed, gave her a new appreciation for softball and what the sport can do for young people.
Simultaneously, it was not Stanton who took the role of re-recruiting one of her former players. That idea came from one of Stanton’s former players and Braxton’s former teammates, Jazmine Valle, who continued to press Braxton on what she believed to be an incorrect decision.
“Jazmine’s firm belief was that, for Shae, this would have been a decision that she would’ve regretted down the road,” Stanton said.
Valle, who was a senior during Braxton’s 2013 freshman season at Marshall, persisted.
“She called me eight or nine times and asked if I wanted to play again,” Braxton said. “I said, ‘I’m done; I quit; I hate softball.”
But Valle kept pressing her former teammate. Last August, Valle tried again, asking Braxton: “Are you sure you’re done?”
That prompted Braxton to finally inquire: “Why do you keep asking?”
Valle told Braxton that she didn’t think Braxton was finished as a player, that there were loose ends and unfinished stories. After that, Braxton called Stanton to see if the door was even unlocked to a player who had walked away from the program. What Braxton found stunned her: The door wasn’t only unlocked, but wide open awaiting her return.
“My time away from the program and doing everything I had to do to get back made me realize how much it’s worth and how much this program is worth,” Braxton said. “For coach to be able to take me back after I made the decision to quit and still respect me as a person and a ball player, and to never hold it against me and never throw it in my face shows me how amazing of a woman she is.”
Braxton has started all 45 games this season. She is hitting .306 with 8 home runs and 31 RBIs, but her value to one of the greatest teams in Marshall softball history far outweighs the numbers found on the back of a trading card.
“It is kind of cliché when people talk about the glue, but she is the one person who was able to lead this team in the right direction,” Stanton said. “She really understands our core values and how we operate and what intensity and pace we operate at. For her, it’s second nature.”
She is a vocal leader on the left side of the infield, where she plays next to fellow senior and shortstop Morgan Zerkle.
“When she stepped away, I felt like things would work out,” Stanton said. “Having her back on this team is such a blessing. Obviously, with her ability and our needs, we needed her with her dynamic of leadership. She steps right in and elevates everybody else. That’s the mark of a good leader.”
Braxton’s value as a player is obvious. Example: Conference USA coaches named Braxton to the league’s preseason all-conference team even though she missed an entire season. They recognized what her bat, leadership and other attributes would bring to the Herd.
“You’re looking at a back-to-back 50-RBI kid who can change the course of the game with one swing of the bat,” Stanton said. “And when you see her and her intensity and energy on the field and you look at her – she passes the eye test. She’s an athlete you remember.”
Braxton did as her college coach wanted: she owned her decision. Now she is back with the program armed with much more than a potent bat.
“My time away,” Braxton said, “made me realize the game is about more than a yellow ball.”