MCGILL: @HerdSB Legacy Certain After Record Season
The Word on the Herd -- May 21, 2017
By Chuck McGill
LEXINGTON, Ky. – In the wake of Marshall’s exit from the 2017 NCAA Division I Softball Championship, the program’s second appearance in the 64-team event in the past five seasons, coach Shonda Stanton reflected.
She recounted how she stopped coaching for a moment in the bottom half of the last inning of Marshall’s season. There were two outs and pinch hitter Briana Daiss had just belted a two-run home run that landed on the ESPN camera tower beyond the left field fence. That gave Conference USA Player of the Year, senior shortstop Morgan Zerkle, one final at-bat in a decorated career.
After a brief chat with Zerkle, Stanton stood in the third base coach’s box and watched the 641st official at-bat of the Milton native’s career.
“I think so many times in the grind you expect so much out of these athletes and you’re just constantly coaching, coaching, coaching and we’re all about trying to take a breath and savor it,” Stanton said. “That was fun to be able to do that.”
Zerkle, as she is wont to do, delivered in the moment with her sixth triple of the season, which set a program record. Of course.
It is what one came to expect from this year’s version of Thundering Herd softball. Among the regular seniors who played their final collegiate games here at the University of Kentucky’s John Cropp Stadium, Zerkle, pitcher Jordan Dixon and third baseman Shaelynn Braxton did what they’ve always done.
Zerkle did it all.
Dixon gave it her all.
Braxton led them all.
“I’m proud of our group,” Stanton said. “We’re never defined by any single performance. It’s a special group that are champions. We had the most wins in Marshall softball with 42. We’re not defined by this last game. It’s a credit to them.”
Marshall played 25 innings in a three-game, two-day stay at UK, one of 16 regional hosts in the NCAA tournament. The Herd lost to Illinois twice and defeated DePaul to finish 42-12, a school record for wins in a single season.
“It’s a special group,” Stanton said.
Zerkle had five of her team’s 18 hits in the tournament, coming only a home run short of hitting for the tournament cycle. She added two steals to finish with a school record 162 in four seasons.
She added to her legacy with a home run in her final home at-bat, and then delivered a triple in her final collegiate at-bat.
“Through my four years there have been a lot of fun times and a lot of growth,” Zerkle said. “It’s something I would never change … my four years and the experience I’ve had. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Dixon proved to be a workhorse in the circle. She threw 342 pitches before exiting in the third inning of the Herd’s third game. She tossed all of those pitches in a span of 29 hours, 54 minutes, from the time of the first pitch against Illinois in the opener Friday at 12:05 p.m., to the final one at 5:59 p.m. on Saturday evening.
“When you’re tired you play with your heart,” Stanton said. “Our group played with their heart today.”
Braxton is the only player on the team to be part of each of the program’s NCAA tournament appearances. She ended her career second on the program’s all-time list in home runs and RBIs.
“I think it was just a blast to be able to play with Zerkle for four years and play with Shae almost four years,” Dixon said. “It’s just been fun. It was really, really enjoyable and we won a lot of ballgames.”
Indeed, the Herd did plenty of that.
Marshall established a new school record for consecutive wins this season (17). The Herd pushed the program into the national picture by receiving votes in the Top 25 poll, and then surged into the rankings. A regular season C-USA championship followed.
The program’s first at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is an underappreciated accomplishment. This is a team that didn’t catch fire on one weekend and claim an automatic bid that goes to the conference tournament champion. This is a team that earned the selection committee’s vote of approval with its body of work.
That is why Stanton sat at the postgame dais with Zerkle and Dixon to her left and talked about how her team wouldn’t be defined by its season-ending loss. This team won 135 games in four seasons and concluded one of the greatest seasons, regardless of sport, in Marshall athletics history.
For Stanton, that is a footprint much larger than anything that can be found in Saturday’s box score.
“That’s the message to them: we know who we are,” Stanton said. “I’m proud of what we’re building at Marshall softball. I’m proud to be their coach.”