May 4, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – There were senior moments, to be sure, on a sunny Sunday that was Senior Day for Marshall’s softball team at Dot Hicks Field.
However, with Coach Shonda Stanton’s 15th Thundering Herd club having 16 freshmen and sophomores on a 20-player roster, the successful youth movement continued as Marshall pointed toward the Conference USA Tournament in Boca Raton, Fla.
Thanks to a five-run bottom of the sixth, the Herd rallied past Louisiana Tech, 8-4, to finish a series sweep before a crowd of 614. Marshall, the defending C-USA champion, is the No. 7 seed for the eight-team, single-elimination tourney – facing second-seeded UAB (31-24, 15-8) in a quarterfinal Thursday at Florida Atlantic.
Marshall and UAB did not meet this season, with C-USA having 13 softball members, and only eight weekends of league play.
As the Herd (26-30, 13-11) enters C-USA elimination play for the eighth time in nine years in the league, there should be no surprise that Stanton’s team rode its offense as young pitchers Jordan Dixon and Lindsey Fadnek matured in the circle.
The regular-season finale was no exception. Marshall sprayed and slugged 14 hits all over “The Dot,” with senior first baseman Savanah Webster clearing the left-center fence just under the scoreboard with a game-tying homer in the third.
Six of the Herd hits were for extra bases, including freshman MU stolen-base record-holder Morgan Zerkle’s two-run triple in the big sixth inning, erasing a Tech 4-3 lead. Zerkle got her 46th steal Sunday
Raquel Escareno and Katalin Lucas each went 3-for-4. Including doubles for insurance runs in the sixth.
Five players had multi-hit games, including sophomore centerfielder Kaelynn Greene, whose two singles pushed her to 77 hits for the season – breaking Amanda Williams’ 2003 record of 75.
The 2014 Herd ranks third in the 21-year history of the program in team batting average (.292), and the 270 runs is second only to the 278 in ’03. The club also is third all-time in total bases and homers.
“It ranks right up there with the combination of speed and power,” Stanton said when asked if this club is one of her best offensive teams. “We’ve always had (success with the bat). Last year we led the conference in stolen bases and home runs, and this year we’re right there in the mix in the top third in homers and lead in stolen bases.
“But as far as the package, the combination of what we’re able to do, the doubles, the gap stuff, stringing doubles together, we’re more consistent 1 through 9. Our weakness has always been defense. Once we can figure out defense, we’ll win five or six more games, easy.”
Stanton was happy that the Herd could have backed into the C-USA field with help, but rather took the aggressive route by sweeping the Lady Techsters (19-33, 7-16). Besides the offense, Fadnek (8-8) was strong with six innings of two-hit, one-run relief after Tech got to Dixon for three first-inning scores.
“We gave them runs early,” said Stanton, who got her 450th Marshall victory in the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader. “As long as we didn’t give them anymore, we knew we could win the ballgame.”
The youthful Herd started 6-18, but is 20-12 since, and now heading for a tournament it won from a No. 4 seed last season and played in the title game two other years (2006 and 2012).
She said the Herd’s play in recent weeks should be an answer to those who wondered about the program, seemingly forgetting that when the 2013 seniors who led the Herd to a first C-USA title and NCAA regionals berth were sophomores, they struggled, too.
“This group is ahead of that, but it’s so easy to question and doubt,” Stanton said. “It’s a process. You’ve got to develop these kids. We have as many wins in conference, 13-11 (record), with 16 freshmen and sophomores, and last year seniors led the way.
“These kids have the opportunity to be that (the 2013 success story).”
Asked if after the team’s tough start she figured the Herd could reach the C-USA tourney, Stanton said she didn’t waver when the pitching and defense seemed to be a game-to-game struggle.
“Yes, and you know why? I told these kids that the only thing we will be is consistently inconsistent,” the Herd coach said. “I knew we’d sweep some weekends and I knew we’d get swept some weekends, because there was going to be no in-between. We’d be very good, or very bad.
“And if you look at what we’ve done over the course of the season, that’s exactly what we’ve done. These kids will get hot and they’ll get confidence. It’s all confidence at this level. They have the ability. It’s all confidence. You can’t teach that; you can’t coach that. They have to feel that.”
Webster and catcher-designated hitter Taylor Winton played their final Herd home games Sunday. How much longer their MU careers last will depend mostly on their underclassmen – a group that has not disappointed, with Stanton having two new assistant coaches in Chanda Bell and Kendall Fearn, too.
“I was OK with where they were, but (the players) weren’t,” Stanton said of the stuttering start. “And they kept wanting to challenge things and get upset about things, and I just had to keep reminding them …
“Now, had it been my first five years, I probably wouldn’t have been patient with them, I’d have been frustrated, been miserable. I’ve got two great coaches who were new to the program and they keep things light, very positive.
“And here we are.”