The TWU Pioneers know how difficult it was to make it to their first NCAA Division II national tournament. It took them 63 games to advance to nationals, where they showed they belonged among the superior class of teams despite being eliminated by Grand Valley State on May 25.
Previous to nationals, junior Katie Hines, who was later named to the NFCA and Daktronics All-American second team, reflected on the journey that led up to nationals.
“We have earned it,” she said. “We’ve earned it by the way we played this year, not how we’ve played in years past. You don’t get here without earning it. You don’t just get to show up and get to go to nationals. We earned it.”
With one of the most successful classes of TWU softball players departing, the Pioneers’ run to nationals was no fluke.
Third baseman Jordan Readicker and left fielder Lizzy Kelly were some of head coach Richie Bruister’s first recruits. They started every game this season, with both players earning Lone Star Conference Golden Glove awards for their defensive play, along with their staunch offensive numbers.
But as Hines put it, this season is special in its own right. Forget the previous landmark trips to regionals in Readicker’s and Kelly’s first year in 2010 and forget last season’s run to regionals. This season had its own identification and polarization.
Bruister always looks for coaching moments, but what transpired very early on in the season was more than a moment, it was a significant turning point in the team’s chemistry that allowed the Pioneers to achieve greatness.
“I knew the potential of the team that we had, and I knew that if we didn’t get team chemistry, didn’t play for each other and didn’t care about the name on the front of our jersey, we wouldn’t have as a good of a year,” Bruister said. “We’d still have a good year and potentially a 40-win season, but at the end of the year, we’d look back and think, ‘Man, we’ve got a good team, but we didn’t achieve everything.’”
With the players already receiving an education, in Bruister’s mind, the players needed to respect what the school provided them to compete in the game of softball while earning respect for each other in the process.
“So what I did was, in compliance and all that good stuff, I made them turn in everything they had with TWU on it,” Bruister said. “Everything. Anything they had. Shorts, backpacks, they have a lot of stuff. Turn it in. We had 18 players at the time and I gave 18 things that had to be done.”
In order to get their gear back, Bruister cooked up 18 tasks for each player with a different player in charge each time, responsible for the entire team’s failures while forcing the team to drudge through the uncomfortable or off-putting communications that come with organized work.
“There are a lot of successful people with technology and all, but you can never take the personal interaction that you have to have to go make a sale on something or prove your point on something,” Bruister said. “You’re not going to get it through a text or an e-mail. You just can’t get the context on it. You have to open up a little bit of that, but at the same time you have to have the values that they are going to need and try to teach them ways to communicate.”
With each player responsible for cleaning up the dugout or the storage closet or picking up grass, the communications began to get tough, but Bruister was steadfast on the responsibility put on the team leader.
“You’re the boss,” Bruister told the team leaders. “Go get them doing something. They felt bad about it and now they have to communicate and tell somebody something they don’t want to do. It was very hard for them.”
While the lesson in communication was well under way, the lesson about a completing a job to the fullest was also being taught, sometimes to a bit of an extreme, Bruister said.
“We graded each one and nobody got an A. Mostly Cs and Ds, some Fs, but it was real life,” Bruister said. “They don’t get that in the classroom. I’m shooting you the truth. If you want to be successful in life, you have to do this. If you want to be in charge someday, this is what you are going to have to do and this is a great situation to do it in. It’s not life or death and you’re not going to get fired. Here’s a great opportunity to work within a group of people.”
So with the rounds of chores and duties checked off the list, Bruister saved the toughest one on the list for the most inexperienced player, catcher Ashley Maddox, to lead her team in preparing the entire softball field ready for a game — a sure-fail situation as Bruister described it.
“Sometimes you put them in situations to be confident about themselves, or you put them in a fail situation and they are going to fail no matter what,” Bruister said. “You have plenty of time to do it in, but you had them putting the flags upside down and putting the [base] lines off. They had to redo it. They had to really work together and they didn’t do so good with that.”
What may seem like a cruel prank to an outsider or punishment, that was quickly squashed by Bruister as he explained the methods to his madness.
“I explained to [Maddox] afterwards that she wasn’t going to pass this,” Bruister said. “The team got it because they let her fail as one of her teammates, and as a freshman, you let her down. She was telling you what to do and you wouldn’t do it. What was neat, was that she was right on some of the stuff, but they wouldn’t listen.”
“Everybody got frustrated and I think you saw a coming together with a majority of the team at that point. If we’re going to achieve anything, we’ve got to work together and we have to listen to each other. They started to appreciate the things they get and not just expect stuff.”
The Pioneers went on to sweep their way through the LSC tournament, regionals and super regionals all the way to nationals with every player leading the team to victory along the way.
The Pioneers will have near craters to fill with the losses of Readicker, Kelly and pitchers Karissa Hartwig and Larisa Garcia, but with the invaluable experiences and team solidification that TWU gained by their trek to nationals, the perspective the Pioneers have will at the very least shed a little light down what seemed to be uncharted territory just months ago.
“Those players want to get back because now they’ve seen that they belong there and they had just as good as chance to win that as anybody else,” Bruister said. “Now they see that. It won’t come easy.”
The first step the Pioneers will have to take to repeat their success will be leadership, a lesson the majority of the team has already learned in spades.
“We’ll be as good as our leaders are,” Bruister said. “Which team has the best leadership is going to win. We’ve got to have a new team chemistry and everyone is going to have to buy in. The new ones are going to have to be receptive of it. You can’t fight it. We’ll be starting over from scratch. You’d love to pick right up where you left off, but there will be 60 ballgames before then.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.