TWU head coach Richie Bruister isn’t afraid to kick back and have a little fun, but when it’s time to get serious, he does.
With the Pioneers set to play host to their second straight round of playoffs and only two wins away from the NCAA Division II championship tournament in Virginia, Bruister is savoring the opportunity for fun, not conforming to the gravity of the situation.
“Obviously, the way we are playing gives me great confidence,” Bruister said. “I’m just basically just staying out of their way. The team believes in the decisions that are being made, and they are giving 100 percent. You don’t necessarily always have to understand why we are doing it. Our team has done a real good job of not questioning and getting their job done.”
The Pioneers will face St. Edward’s in a best-of-three series today and Saturday at Pioneer Field, and with only a handful of games remaining for the Pioneers, regardless if they advance to nationals, Bruister is encouraging his team to embrace the moment.
“We need to enjoy the time we’ve got here,” Bruister said. “We’re at the end of the road no matter what. They are already winners. I’m extremely proud of this team and what they’ve done and what they represent. It’s just a joy.”
Last season, the Pioneers were eliminated from the region tournament by St. Edward’s, but this season has been different in many ways.
The Pioneers won their first Lone Star Conference championship and LSC tournament before sweeping their way through regionals into the super regionals, so confidence isn’t hard to come by. But the well-earned respect the players feel from Bruister is also having a critical impact on their play on the field.
“I think we really feel the sincerity that he is proud of us for everything that we’ve accomplished so far and that’s what makes it easier, too, knowing he’s proud of us already and he knows we can do more,” pitcher Larisa Garcia said. “He’s really taking the pressure off how close we are and focusing more on having fun.”
For Bruister, a certain level of trust had to be gained for him to make it to his laid-back approach.
“In the beginning of the year, you’re a little more demanding,” Bruister said. “You’re really pushing and trying to get the most out of them. At some point of the year, for me, I maybe change that approach a little bit. As coaches, we’ve prepared them and we’ve done our jobs. Now it’s up to them.”
Garcia, who was on last season’s run to regionals, said there is a difference between Bruister’s attitude last season and this season.
“A lot of the same girls are here, but the mentality was different,” Garcia said. “We were younger and we probably needed to be yelled at a little bit to get to where we are right now. Now that he sees we are matured and he has confidence in us, he has backed off.”
Bruister has done his share of yelling, Garcia said, but his coaching style resides in a positive environment, without the threat of getting chewed out or pulled from a game.
“It’s a two-way street there,” Bruister said. “Players can’t play nervous. Players can’t be scared to fail. There is too much failure in this game, so if you harp on them when they mess up, they are going to mess up again and that’s what we don’t want. That’s when the big innings come.”
Junior Brandie Lander has commented throughout the season of the difference in support and confidence between junior college softball and her experience with TWU, and Bruister and assistant coach Sena Horne. Every time she is in the pitcher’s circle, Bruister’s conviction of her and the pitching staff resonates in her mind.
“That’s something that coach Bruister has put in our heads from the beginning, though,” Lander said. “Just telling us, ‘you’re better than the other pitching staffs.’ I know that pitching in a game, I don’t go out there thinking any batter is better than I am because I control where the ball goes.”
As much as Bruister invigorates his team with confidence, he matches it with caution and respect for the opponent as it is that even-keel approach that keeps the players focused on what they can control.
“At that point, we take it game by game,” Lander said. “We don’t think too far ahead. We know we need two games, but we are thinking about Friday [today], and I think that’s going to be really important for nationals. You can only prepare for so much at a time. There’s no reason to overload yourself.”
The Pioneers are 2-1 against the Hilltoppers this season, but St. Edward’s is also riding high after also sweeping its way through the regionals with a win over West Texas-A&M in the first game and two wins against Angelo State to advance. Both the Pioneers and Hilltoppers have positioned themselves for one of eight spots at nationals, but it will take more than confidence and conviction to advance.
“They are a very well-coached team, which is playing really well right now,” Bruister said. “They’ve got great pitching, great offense and great defense. St. Edward’s wants it, but we are going to have to want it more than they do.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873. and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.