One of Softball’s Best Enters the Hall of Fame during 25th Anniversary Celebration
Amanda Williams will be inducted Sept. 15
By Scott Hall
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – On Nov. 16, 2001, the Marshall softball team announced the signing of five players for the 2002-03 season. Little did the team know that this group would go on to become the most successful class in program history, as well as lead it into the national scene. Courtney Kacenga, Sara Spenia, Amanda Williams, Jessica Williams and Leigh Wintter formed the nucleus for the next four seasons of success.
But one player rose above the rest, helping to lead the team to new heights on the field as a player, and even bigger heights as an assistant coach.
Amanda Williams led the Herd as a record-breaking centerfielder and then from the coach’s box for a total of 11 seasons. During that span, Marshall won 30 or more games eight times, appeared in four conference championship games, won two conference regular season titles, one conference tournament championship and the team’s first ever bid to the NCAA Regional Tournament.
The kid from Georgia was not aware of Marshall until she began to get recruited by the Herd’s head coach Shonda Stanton. But through the recruitment process and then a visit to Marshall’s campus, Williams knew she was making the right decision.
“It was a relief to sign with Marshall, because it is kind of a stressful time period as a student-athlete,” Williams said. “To make that big decision, I was overjoyed and excited that I would be a part of the Herd and start the next chapter of my life.”
That next chapter included two other players in which Williams was very familiar. One was her twin sister Jessica and the other was travel ball teammate Leigh Wintter.
“Throughout the whole process, Jessica and I knew that we wanted to go to college together,” the Powder Springs, Ga. native said. “For both of us to sign with the Herd, and to have Leigh with us, was something that we were excited about.
“The night before we signed, the three of us met at the mall and just did pros and cons. I think we all knew that Marshall is where we wanted to be, but getting it down on paper helped.”
Coach Stanton knew she had a young team after losing seven seniors and also trying to bounce back from a very difficult 2002 season. The freshman class came in to Huntington with a lot of confidence that they could perform even before knowing what they were getting in to.
“We came in with the goal that we were going to win conference even though we didn’t know much about college softball, the conference or the opponents,” Williams stated. “But, I think it was just our expectation and coach Stanton helped implement that we were going to be impact players. We were going after some lofty goals.”
2003 soon become the best season in Marshall softball history.
After beginning the season 3-2, the Herd rattled off four straight wins including an eight inning, 2-1 victory over No. 22 Iowa. Marshall continued to roll through the regular season, especially in the Mid-American Conference. The Thundering Herd ended the season with a program-best 41 wins, and 20-4 in MAC play to win its first regular season championship.
And the team did it with all five of those freshmen starting every game.
“To look back and see that five freshmen were starting on the field was a big deal because you don’t see that too often,” the Herd’s former centerfielder said. “But to be able to come in and set those records was something that we can hold on to.”
Williams ended the season with Marshall records for batting average (.421), runs scored (51), hits (75), RBI (60) and total bases (105). She was named MAC Freshman of the Year.
The season ended in heartbreak as Marshall was eliminated from the MAC Tournament, one game shy of reaching the championship. Despite also having 41 wins, the Herd did not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately, this was not the last time that Williams would experience the pain of not getting the opportunity to continue the season.
In 2004, the Herd entered with very high hopes. “We were preseason ranked, I think 32nd in the nation,” Williams recalled. “We started out like we had something to prove and I just think that it wasn’t our year.”
Marshall was the favorite to win the MAC and have a shot at Regionals. However, a midseason slump dashed those chances as the Herd finished 12-12 in conference action and missed out on making it to the conference tournament.
“I don’t know what it was,” Williams said. “We lost so many games by one run or something crazy happened and it just wasn’t in the cards. We took that disappointment of unfinished business and it really set us up for the next two years.”
MUSB made a major turnaround in 2005, taking back the MAC Regular Season title with again a 20-4 conference record. This time, Marshall did reach the MAC Tournament championship game. But again, heartache as the Herd lost, 5-2, to Miami.
“We had everything going our way and then there was the rainout,” Williams said thinking back to that day in May. “I think that ended up hurting us because the momentum and everything was on our side.
“I believe we had the better team and we should have won the title and again for us not to get the bid was hard.”
In 2006, Marshall made the move to Conference USA. Now the class that came to Huntington together in the fall of 2002 were seniors and they were on a mission. Win the conference tournament, make it to postseason play and leave their mark on the program.
The Herd made it the C-USA Championship game in 2006 and faced Tulsa. Williams said the team felt good going into the contest.
“We were so relaxed that weekend in Tulsa,” Williams said. “So confident and to lose on a walk-off home run was heart-wrenching. I remember watching that ball go over the fence and dropping to my knees thinking ‘this can’t be.’
“But we believed we were going to get the at-large bid and then we didn’t. It was definitely devastating to end your college career without that accomplishment.
Even without the championship wins or the NCAA Tournament appearances, the class of 2006 left an indelible mark on the Marshall softball program. They won 143 games over their time, an average of almost 36 wins a year, and set many records. The group made many more people in the nation aware that something special was going on at Dot Hicks Field.
Teams and fans knew that if they were playing Marshall, they were in for a fight and the fiery and passionate Williams led that charge.
She batted either leadoff or third in the lineup because of her ability at the plate. After her senior season, Williams ranked in the top five, if not first, in almost every offensive category. She had set new marks for future players to go after. Her fiery play also became contagious.
In the outfield, Williams was armed with an incredible ability to read the ball coming off the bat perfectly and the speed to run down so many sure fire base hits. Not to mention a right arm that could be compared to a howitzer with its strength. There weren’t very many teams that tried their luck running for that extra base if number three scooped up the ball.
Williams was not afraid to even gun in a throw to first if the batter happened to round the bag a little too far after a base hit.
At Southern Miss is 2006, a Golden Eagle batter had a base hit to right-center that Williams scooped up and pumped faked to first. The batter calmly walked back to first while staring over her shoulder to center. A fan in the outfield spoke up and said, “Why would she think she can make that throw. That’s ridiculous for a centerfielder to think they can throw out a runner at first.”
I calmly told the fan, “Just wait. Amanda can gun her out if she does it again.”
Later in the ballgame, the very same batter had another grounder to right-center for a base hit. This time Williams did not pump fake but instead fired a shot to Sara Spenia at first. The batter made a head-first dive back to the bag, but not in time. The Southern Miss fan didn’t say a word. They just stood there with their mouth wide open.
Williams was not done with her playing career as she was drafted by the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch League. It was a new challenge.
“To find out there was interest in being drafted, it became something I wanted to pursue,” Williams the seven year pro said. “I was not ready to hang up my cleats.”
Williams may not have won a championship as a player with Marshall but she did twice in the NPF. The first with the Rockford Thunder and again with the Bandits.
However, Williams was also not finished with Marshall. She took an opportunity to pursue her Master’s degree and work as the volunteer coach. After two years, she was promoted to a full-time assistant.
With Williams as an assistant coach to Shonda Stanton, the Herd remained very competitive but still just could not seem to finish in the end.
“I feel like with us, every year there was something for some reason that we didn’t finish out the season like we should have,” Williams said. “I look back on those teams and think there should have been so many times that we could have been at regionals but it makes you fight that much harder for the next team.”
At the end of the 2012 season, the Marshall softball program thought that it was finally losing one of the best. Williams became engaged to Erik Paz and looked to be going back home to Georgia as Erik had just taken a job at a university not far from where Williams grew up. And then another championship game appearance, and another championship loss, brought her back for another run.
“After the loss, coach Stanton and coach B (Chelsey Barclay) and some of the players started chanting ‘One More Year, One More Year’,” Williams remembers with a smile. “I spoke with Erik about it and he supported my decision to stay at Marshall for one more year. Even though we were engaged we spent the year apart with the goal of being conference champs and continuing in postseason play.”
2013 became a memorable year for the Herd. The team did not let a slow start get the best of them and rolled on into the C-USA Tournament as the four-seed. Marshall pulled off a miraculous comeback to eliminate East Carolina, 5-4. Then, the Herd held off the UAB Blazers potent offense, 1-0, and moved on to the championship game to face the Houston Cougars.
Marshall was in command on that perfect sunny day in May. Houston could not match the Herd’s intensity as Marshall, and Williams, finally found that elusive championship win. Williams was ecstatic running out onto the field after the final out.
“For us to make the championship and actually win it, everything came to fruition,” Williams said. “It was all worth the wait and it was just an awesome experience.”
The Herd then moved on to the NCAA Regional Tournament for the first time in program history. This time, the team did not have to sit and watch the selection show hoping to see Marshall come across the screen. Now it was just a matter of waiting to see where the team was headed. It was two hours down the road, in Lexington, Ky.
And it became an experience that none of them, especially Williams would ever forget.
“Oh my gosh, to look up and see how much support we had at Kentucky you would have thought it was a home game for us because there were so many people who came from Marshall to support us,” Williams said, beaming. “You could really feel the atmosphere and we definitely belonged there.”
Marshall was eliminated after two, hard fought, extra-inning ball games but did win one in between over Notre Dame.
Williams left Marshall and headed down to Georgia, married Erik Paz and now the couple have one child with another along the way. But she will never forget her time with the Green and White.
“I never thought that I would be there quite that long,” Williams stated with a laugh. “But Marshall is a special place and I was very fortunate that I was able to be a part of the team and the culture for as long as I was.”
The Marshall softball program continues to shine as the 2017 team was ranked nationally, finally found that at-large bid that always seemed to almost be just out of reach and broke the 2003 squad’s record for most wins a season with 42.
On Friday night, Sept. 15, nine former student-athletes and coaches will be inducted into the Marshall Athletics Hall of Fame with Williams among that group. She will be the fifth member of the softball program in the Hall of Fame in her first season of eligibility.
It is fitting that as the 25th Anniversary of the program is being celebrated, that one of the best to ever join the team will immortalized in the Hall of Fame. Her time at Marshall has come full circle with this induction. From sitting in a mall in Georgia, going over the pros and cons, to being honored on Hall of Fame weekend it has been quite the journey. And even though her time on the field and in the coach’s box – 617 games – may be over, she did indeed leave her mark.
A giant footprint that put Marshall softball on the map.