May 15, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - On the morning after the morning after, Shonda Stanton was anything but in mourning.
Much was rightfully made in these parts about Marshall's failure to reach the 64-team NCAA Division I softball tournament bracket, but Stanton - the Herd's coach of 13 seasons (389-324-2) - was as matter-of-fact as those NCAA selection committees can be.
"I've said we're not owed anything in life," Stanton said, after moving the Conference USA Tournament runner-up trophy across her office floor in the Herd's Dot Hicks Field clubhouse. "If we'd taken care of business and won (the title game), we'd be in."
Stanton - a mother of three -- learned long ago not to cry over spilled milk.
As she defended the Herd's worthiness in several ways, she offered qualifiers on why it maybe didn't happen as she was looking back on the Herd's best season (36-21) of seven in C-USA.
She also was looking ahead to 2013, with nine recruits headed here, and a cellphone and laptop filled with e-mails she cannot answer - NCAA recruiting contact rules - from interested prospects who saw the Herd's 3-2 conference tourney loss to Tulsa on the tube.
Stanton figures the Herd program will get an additional boost thanks to graduating catcher Rebecca Gamby, who is one of 40 candidates for the USA National Team. Five will make it and the other 17 will play on the second-tier USA Elite Team. Either way, the Ohioan is the newest next-level player who is a Herd product.
The big deal, however, is with star pitcher Andi Williamson back for a senior season, why shouldn't Stanton be looking forward to 2013 - which will be only the 20th intercollegiate season for the MU program?
Asked what dominating work from the circle means in college softball, Stanton talked about pitching "making your defense better, relaxing your offense because you don't feel you have to score as many runs, you're more relaxed and that mirrors confidence ..." and then got to the point.
"It's everything, really," the Sharon, Pa., native said.
There's another factor the Herd has a chance to climb in the sport like Williamson's riser. Stanton's vibrant personality could recruit a corpse, or so it seems.
The Herd's 36-21 record surely was in the at-large ballpark, but the big bracket's 34 at-large teams included only five teams outside the so-called BCS leagues - including fellow C-USA members UAB, UCF and Houston. The others were Hawaii and Louisiana-Lafayette, upset in the Sun Belt Conference tournament, but landing a No. 14 NCAA seed.
There has been some comparison of the softball Herd's postseason snub to that of the 2011-12 Marshall men's basketball team, but the situations are different in some ways ... and trying to figure out what NCAA selection committees are emphasizing? Good luck with that.
Coach Tom Herrion's hoops team had the highest Ratings Percentage Index number (44) of any team that didn't get an NCAA Tournament berth, and eight at-large teams with lower RPIs got bids. The Herd also was No. 16 in strength of schedule and a big-time No. 9 in non-conference SOS.
In softball, Marshall didn't have the RPI or close to the SOS it needed. Stanton made the point that if "you're going to take four from our conference, I thought we should have been one of them."
However, NCAA selection committees are regularly vocal that conference considerations are ignored. Stanton knew the Herd didn't have the marquee wins of some others, something she is trying to fix by scheduling the Herd into tournaments at USF and Georgia Tech - both in the NCAA 2012 field -- next season.
Marshall was the C-USA tournament runner-up and tied Houston and UCF for third place in the regular season, but the Herd took the tiebreaker for the No. 3 seed. Marshall swept UCF in three straight Williamson shutouts, and won two of three from the Cougars.
However, following Tulsa at 32, UAB, UCF and Houston landed Nos. 40-42 in the final RPI. Marshall was at 53, up from 60 before its C-USA runner-up weekend.
"Outside the conference is what got us (outside the bracket)," Stanton said. "We lost to Florida State and Maryland (twice); they got in. What we lacked, I understand."
There was something else, too. Herd Athletic Director Mike Hamrick more than alluded to it when Herrion's basketball team not only didn't get an NCAA bid, but also was inexplicably sent packing to Middle Tennessee for an NIT first-round road game that the Herd lost.
It's recent relevance.
Maybe that's not supposed to matter, but it does, and Stanton conceded as much. When you haven't been to the NCAA - and Marshall softball hasn't, period, and it's been 25 years for men's hoops -- it's harder to get there. Once you've been there, you're on the radar.
There's also another fact Marshall is battling, and it isn't alone.
It's the real world for more than 200 Division I teams in basketball, softball, baseball, any sport that uses the RPI.
As long as the RPI is driving a good portion of the selection process, those BCS leagues are going to prosper. The RPI is a self-perpetuating strength-of-schedule reward for the leagues at the top, like the SEC and Pac-12, which own 17 of the 64 softball bids.
You're going to get plenty of opportunities in league play to add to the strength of schedule. A Marshall has to get those teams to play - and then must go on the road to do so.
Arkansas (27-26) can lose 24 of its last 45 games, go 7-21 in the SEC, finish tied for last in the SEC West and make the national tournament. Why? Because the Hogs got wins over ranked high-RPI entrants like Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and LSU, among others, during the season.
Northwestern has been mentioned as another suspect NCAA entry as the fifth-place Big Ten team and with an RPI of 51. However, the Wildcats (27-27) had the No. 1 strength of schedule nationally.
That's a good reason why only five at-large bids went to the mid-majors. The plus for the Herd is that three of them went to C-USA, so Stanton's returnees know what's possible.
"This team really came together as a group," Stanton said, "and with someone returning like Andi and a good corps of kids with her, we have a real good shot next year. We just need to go out and win that (C-USA) tournament and do decent against the top non-conference teams.
"We worked the kinks out early and everybody did their jobs. We said we could have huge success if we just played our roles, but we had so many different things from so many different kids, I don't know you count on that happening.
"We had to use Andi too much this season, really. We told her yesterday that our goal is, if we pitch her correctly and not every game like we did late and she can stay stronger, she's not going to lose a ballgame."
Stanton's Herd now knows what it takes to get there. She thinks her softball team is ready to play hardball.
Contact HerdZone.com journalist and Herd Insider Editor Jack Bogaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org.