(Editor’s Note: During the COVID-19 global pandemic, we’ve decided to make all new content on JWOS free to all readers. If you’re so inclined, you can subscribe to and support JWOS by clicking here.)
The JWOS Spring Road Trip is officially in the books. Though the COVID-19 pandemic brought an earlier-than-expected end to my travels, I was still able to see dozens of teams, visit twelve states, and my 2020 game count ended well into the triple-digits.
I’ve been in a bit of a writing funk over the last week or so, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. So what’s the best way to get out of that funk? Well, obviously, it’s to recount my favorite moments from the 5,000-mile journey that was.
1. Missouri starting the season with a chip on their shoulder
After the NCAA upheld the Tigers’ one-year postseason ban in an appellate board’s decision last fall, the Tigers couldn’t play for a championship, but they could still play. All that Larissa Anderson’s squad did was start the year 10-0, with wins over Minnesota and Oklahoma State highlighting the slate (that’s two World Series teams from a year ago, if you’re taking notes at home). I saw the Tigers in back-to-back weeks, thanks to their starting the season with two consecutive weeks in Clearwater, and the program was very evidently playing for something more than a win in the scorebook.
2. Two of the game’s longest-tenured coaching staffs face off
When Baylor and Missouri State met on the field at the NFCA Leadoff Classic, the game featured two of Division One’s longest-tenured coaching staffs. Baylor’s head coach Glenn Moore and assistants Mark Lumley and Britni Newman have been together in Waco for sixteen years, while Missouri State’s staff of Holly Hesse and assistants Sue Frederick and Beth Perine have led the Bears for twenty-five years as a unit. The pair of staffs got together pre-game for an on-field photo opportunity, and were recognized by the NFCA for their respective longevity.
3. A first look at Kelley Lynch
The top-rated freshman in the class of 2019, there was a lot of expectation surrounding Lynch as she entered the collegiate ranks. After a quiet opening week, Lynch waited for a big stage to show out in Clearwater, hitting her first collegiate home run and earning the win in the circle against Florida State. She came in clutch for her team, contributing offensively to come-from-behind efforts and eventual victories against Liberty, South Carolina, and Texas Tech.
4. Chattanooga’s Aly Walker loving softball
I made a midweek stop in Chattanooga, and while I wasn’t able to catch game action, chatting with the Mocs’ senior outfielder was quickly one of my favorite parts of the trip. I interviewed Walker and sophomore standout Emily Coltharp, and both were impressive in their communication skills as they gave their thoughts on their team and handling expectations after a championship season. After the interview, though, I wound up observing Walker discussing her nomination for the Senior CLASS Award. Whether the topic was her self-deprecating humor; acute general softball knowledge; or passion for community work, Walker put her communication major on display throughout the day.
5. Ole Home Week in Birmingham
A four-team tournament in Birmingham in week three of the Division I season might seem like an odd stop with tournaments like the Mary Nutter going on across the country, but I feel fairly assured in calling this one of the best team-hosted tournaments of the non-conference season. Hosted by UAB and featuring Louisiana-Lafayette; Oklahoma State; and Ole Miss, the tournament saw a plethora of reunions. Former Texas A&M Aggies Samantha Show (now Oklahoma State’s first base coach), Sarah Hudek, and Kaitlyn Alderink (both now playing for Louisiana-Lafayette) shared a conversation on the field at one point, while some Ragin’ Cajuns fans brought gifts for their former assistant coaches Joe Guthrie and Courtnay Foster, now both on staff at UAB. Megan Kleist and Jimmy Kolaitis, familiar from their time playing and on staff at Oregon, respectively, reconnected during a postgame resting period.
6. Bev Smith’s reaction to her team’s new locker room
I made a midweek stop in Columbia, South Carolina for my first time visiting Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field. I was a day too early to catch live action, but I was given a tour of the facility and had the opportunity to sit down with head coach Beverly Smith. The day before my arrival, the Gamecocks had revealed to the players brand new graphics in a new-look locker room, graphics that included several meaningful and historic photos from the program’s history. The team’s reaction was as spirited as one might expect, and prior to our interview, I had the chance to witness Smith’s first look at the completed new decor. She took particular note of each photo and element of the design, remembering aloud some of the moments documented, and was particularly complimentary of the work done by SID Patrick Osborne and the Gamecocks’ creative team.
7. Clemson’s first-ever ranked win against Georgia
The Tigers’ first year of on-field existence may have been abbreviated, but the squad turned some heads in the games that they got in, and there was no bigger win than a midweek victory over Georgia in front of a large home crowd. I arrived at the stadium an hour before game time, and fans were already steadily trickling in. The crowd gave the Tigers a decided home field advantage, and Valerie Cagle put together quite the performance in the circle, holding down the Dawg bats en route to a complete-game victory. The Tigers did not look like a rookie team, and they didn’t play like one, either, while Cagle showed that she’s going to be a player to watch in the ACC for years to come.
8. Highlighting Division III at the Grand Slam Triangle Classic
Rarely do I get the chance to cover Division III games in-person, but an invitation from William Peace head coach Charlie Dobbins gave me the perfect opportunity to do just that. Week 4 of the Spring Road Trip saw me head to Raleigh, North Carolina, where WPU hosted the Grand Slam Triangle Classic, a tournament that brought in a dozen D3 institutions, including a number of ranked teams. The entire weekend was stellar and well-run, and I was impressed with everything from the operations staff, which included tournament director Jill Smedley, to the on-field product. Great softball doesn’t stop at D1, and this weekend was a great illustration of that very point.
9. Fran Palmer throwing out the 1st pitch at Palmer Park
Palmer Park, the new home of Virginia Softball, is named after program alum Lisa Palmer and her mother Fran, who made the lead gift to see the project come to fruition. A major upgrade over the Cavaliers’ previous facilities, the team’s series against archrival Virginia Tech was prefaced by a ceremonial ribbon cutting, while Lisa and Fran Palmer were recognized on the field, accompanied by family, prior to the series opener. Fran Palmer threw out the ceremonial first pitch to officially christen the facility, a strike that crossed on the outside corner.
10. Kyndall Murray’s first career hit & grand slam… in one swing
In what I’ve now dubbed the ‘Grand Slam Game’, the slugfest between Kentucky and Texas A&M in the rubber game of their conference series had no shortage of storylines. There was none greater, though, than that of Murray, the Aggie sophomore who entered the game without a base hit in her career. A frequent defensive replacement, Murray started the game as the left fielder, and was on her second at-bat of the game after having been pinch hit for earlier. With the bases loaded and her team down by seven, Murray picked the perfect time for her first career hit, parking an Autumn Humes pitch over the left field fence for a grand slam. The Aggies had not emptied their dugout on an earlier home run, but the entire team piled out to greet their comrade at the plate after her big bomb.