May 11, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - On a Graduation Saturday here, the Thundering Herd softball program got its diploma into the big-time.
With its 3-1 victory over second-seeded Houston in Tulsa, Okla., Coach Shonda Stanton's team won the Herd's first Conference USA Tournament championship and the program's first NCAA Tournament berth.
"We came out energized," Stanton said by phone from Tulsa about one hour after the title triumph. "At one point I thought we were getting a little tight, but I kept reminding them of what we've been saying all season:
"You're going to go down as the best team in Marshall softball history."
In the 20th season for the Herd's intercollegiate program, Marshall will learn where it fits into the NCAA's 64-team bracket Sunday at 10 p.m., when the 16 four-team regionals (double-elimination play) are revealed on ESPNU.
"And how cool is that going to be for our players?" Stanton said. "Sitting and watching the name `Marshall' come up on the TV screen, and knowing that's them?"
The regionals are scheduled next Thursday through Sunday.
That's not Marshall's only NCAA participation scheduled next week. Herd senior Nathan Kerns is playing in the NCAA men's golf regionals in Columbus, Ohio, from Thursday through Saturday.
The softball title was the school's second in its C-USA history of eight years. Coach Mitch Jacobs' volleyball program won the 2005 C-USA Tournament championship and an NCAA berth.
That also was the Herd's last team appearance in an NCAA Tournament.
The fourth-seeded Herd (35-20) got past Houston (40-18) on the arm of senior Andi Williamson ... as usual. The ace from Harts went 3-0 in the C-USA Tournament with no earned runs allowed in 21 innings.
For Williamson and five other Herd seniors, the quest for a title burned since a 3-2 C-USA title-game loss to Tulsa a year ago.
"Our main goal was to win it," Williamson said. "I still cannot believe that it happened. I am still so speechless ... Unbelievable ... We are going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
"That has been our main goal since the beginning. We said that we would not be satisfied with second place, and it showed with the determination that we played with all game."
Williamson (32-16), who landed on the all-conference second team earlier in the week behind two first-team pitchers, was the tournament MVP. The Herd got five of the 11 all-tournament spots, as Williamson was joined by seniors Jazmine Valle, Bri Hope and Ashley Gue, and freshman catcher Katalin Lucas.
In the title game, third baseman Valle was 2-for-2. Lucas went 2-for-3, scored a run and had a stolen base. Freshman Alexandra Bayne pinch-hit in the fourth inning and produced the Herd's insurance run with an RBI double.
"Andi was just great," Stanton said. "And Coach B (Chelsey Barclay) did a really great job calling pitches. I told Andi she only made second team (all-conference), but I'd much rather you be MVP of the tournament. She's the best."
In Stanton's 14 seasons at Marshall - with more than 400 victories - the Herd has played in three C-USA title games and one Mid-American Conference championship. This one was the first triumph.
And when the game ended and the Herd charged onto the diamond in celebration, Stanton stood back in the dugout and watched and tried to appreciate more than the moment and thought of people so significant to the Herd program like Dr. Dot Hicks, for whom the MU softball field is named.
"There have been a lot of players and a lot of great coaches come through this program and we've had so many special people," Stanton said. "This is for all of the girls who have ever worn the green and white ... We have so many special people, and I am so proud of the way our student-athletes represented today."
Stanton said the melding of the Herd's six seniors and a talented freshman class has delivered Marshall to where it wanted to go.
"For me, whether this is a high point ... what I expect is for us to step up big in a tournament," Stanton said. "What's big for me is seeing kids have success and graduate, or seeing (assistant) Coach (Amanda) Williams get married on July 12. It's about special moments in their lives.
"Don't get me wrong: I want to win as many as we can, but what's more important is what we experience as a team, and the players' individual accomplishments ... I just wanted to stand back and watch them enjoy the moment."
The Herd wasted plenty of opportunities to close out the title game, leaving 10 on base, but Stanton agreed that surviving a first-round (quarterfinal) 5-4 victory over East Carolina -- despite five Herd errors - may have sent the message that this Marshall team had the resiliency to win.
It also helped the confidence factor, she said, that the Herd had won two of three at home from Houston last month.
"We started 2-7, but we played good people and we played a lot of close games and that helped us," Stanton said. "We just felt like it was our time. Amanda (Williams) came back to coach because she wanted to win that final game, and we'd never done that.
"We'd been there, in four (conference) title games, and now we got that win. And getting there is important, because if you've proven you can get there, when it's close in the RPI, you get those looks you might not if you haven't been there."
The Herd had seven all-conference honorees and two C-USA all-academic picks earlier in the week, then placed five on the all-tourney team.
"It's been a big week for us," Stanton said.
Something says this coming week will be bigger. An NCAA bid changes the Herd's profile and prospects.