May 23, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - The euphoria has stopped, and the cheering has waned, but the echoes of the biggest weekends in Marshall's 20-year softball history still reverberate at Dot Hicks Field.
After the Thundering Herd's first NCAA regionals bid achieved with a first-time Conference USA Tournament title, Coach Shonda Stanton isn't letting go of her team's 36-22 season, while looking ahead in hopes to adding to the success of this spring.
"It's been unbelievable," Stanton said of the loud applause for the Herd at the NCAA and after going 1-2 in the regional at Kentucky's John Cropp Stadium last weekend. "Our team was so impressed with how that stadium was rocking Friday night. It was the third-largest crowd over the 16 regional sites, behind only Alabama and Michigan, I think. The 1,699, there had to be one more person there somewhere, right, 1,700 maybe?
"But really, we had half of those, if not more. It wasn't just 800 fans sitting at a game, it was 800 rocking, lots of cheers, `We are ...,' `Let's go Herd!' And it was constant. It was just great.
"Here, just the buzz around town. I got 147 missed texts from the game, just people congratulating us, how hard we played, how we fought, everybody's just proud of us right now."
With the C-USA Tournament title trophy in her softball complex office, Stanton already is into her offseason, so to speak. She needs three new staff members and could add a couple of players - and doing that after getting the Herd to the 64-team NCAA bracket might be easier.
Hers is a changed program.
"I've already gotten two phone calls about players wanting to transfer here," said Stanton, who got her 425th Herd coaching victory with a triumph over Notre Dame in the regional. "It's amazing the exposure when you're on ESPN. I don't care if you're on ESPNU, 3, 2, does not matter.
"We got some quality exposure and you can't put a price tag on that. Recruiting-wise, in the region, it makes us stronger. Nationally, commentators (ESPN's Cara Capuano and Leah O'Brien-Amico) did a great job being positive about our program.
"I had a chance to go back and watch replays. We just got so much positive press, and everybody at the site knew what kind of team we were. And we were one of four teams that could have won it. It goes to show you how strong that site was."
The Herd dropped two of the four one-run games in the very competitive regional, losing in extra innings twice. The eliminating, 13-inning loss to Virginia Tech last Saturday night is believed to be the longest game in Marshall history.
That brought the end to the careers of six seniors, including ace pitcher Andi Williamson. There has been some speculation around the star from Harts could gain an extra year of eligibility, due to injury during her freshman year at Tennessee before transferring "back home."
Stanton isn't counting on it.
"It's a shot in the dark," the Herd coach said. "It does not look promising. Andi's going to go down there to Tennessee) this week to see what she can get. We've exhausted pretty much everything we can do here on her behalf."
The Herd also is losing assistant coaches Amanda Williams and Chelsey Barclay and director of operations Scott Hall. Stanton said they will be missed, but she has to look forward and get the right hires to replace those who helped the Herd to its first national tournament.
"I've got to find a staff, and go recruiting," Stanton said. "The two things that always make you successful are quality people, kids who compete. I think we're in great shape for the future because of all the young kids we had on our roster, and so many of them got to play and contribute.
"So, we're strong at all of the positions. We do return a very solid pitcher (redshirt freshman Lindsey Fadnek), who hadn't pitched this year after Tommy John (ligament transplant) surgery. She'll help us our tremendously and we've also signed another freshman pitcher (Jordan Dixon of Edmond, Okla.).
"I feel very confident in what we have returning and we've recruited. We've got Halie (Vance) and Brittanie (Fowler), they backed up Andi this season. And Fadnek will be huge for us as long as she recovers to where she was prior to the injury. She'll be full go by September, for fall ball, so that's good. Jordan Dixon comes from a family of good athletes. Her two older sisters played softball at Arkansas. Her brothers (triplets) play football and wrestle (for Edmond North High) ... She's a real spitfire out there.
"The unknown obviously is what's in the circle, but we feel good about it. It's a matter of development. Look at Andi. She was 7-12 her sophomore year, her first year at Marshall, and she turned into really one of the best pitchers in the country because Chelsey did a great job with her.
"We'll be young, with 16 of 20 on the roster will be freshmen and sophomores, but we have talent."
Asked if her second straight 36-win season included any surprises, Stanton nodded.
"I just think how composed the freshmen were, them and Savanah (Webster, a junior college transfer who started in right field)," Stanton said. "I knew with our six seniors we'd be in great shape because those six were strong, and in Andi we had an ace.
"It's not that I was surprised at how talented the freshmen were, but it's still the next level. You never know how it's going to translate, how they'll fight for starting positions. You can go back at any time during the season, and one of them stepped up ... That was huge. There's a moment that each one of those freshmen had that made the difference in a ballgame."
Stanton said the Herd's 2014 schedule is just about wrapped up. The Herd will go to several early season tournaments, including the Citrus Classic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Kissimmee, Fla. MU also will play in tournaments at Coastal Carolina and Auburn and "hopefully at Mississippi State," Stanton said.
"It's a shot in the dark in some of these tournaments, because you really don't know who will be where and how good they'll be to help your RPI," Stanton said. "We're going to ones that should have two or three quality teams that will help us.
"We won't play our (Marshall) Invitational this year. We're holding off until (2015). It would have had to be a week earlier than it was this season (March 1-3), and as bad as the weather was this year, and with two teams canceling (Eastern Illinois, Buffalo) like we had, we decided to wait a year."
The changes in Conference USA membership will alter league play, too. Stanton said of the 16 C-USA members in 2014-15, the only ones that do not play softball are Rice, Tulane and Old Dominion. However, C-USA teams will only play eight of the foes in the regular season.
The Herd has Tulsa, North Texas, FIU and Louisiana Tech at Dot Hicks Field, and goes to FAU, Charlotte, East Carolina and Middle Tennessee. Marshall will not face UAB, Southern Miss, UTSA and UTEP.
"Only eight of the 13 make the (C-USA) tournament, so it's really unbalanced," Stanton said. "I think our softball coaches in conference need to do a better job lobbying to get more teams into the tournament. The SEC just expanded and they take 10 to their tournament. We need to step up in softball."
That's what Stanton's team did this season.
Now, it's up to Marshall to take advantage of having the Herd in bright lights.