Early last fall, new TWU softball coach Genny Stidham got an eye-opening introduction to the passion and excitement the Pioneers have created in the wake of last year’s historic run to the NCAA Division II tournament.
Stidham was making her on-field debut in a scrimmage against Navarro College, a non-descript practice game that meant little to anyone except those playing and coaching. As Stidham prepared for the scrimmage, she began to notice a growing crowd of fans with folding chairs jockeying for position along the backstop fence.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, this is a scrimmage game — where are all of these people coming from?’” Stidham said. “You could tell the people were ready for softball. I was like, ‘But I’m not ready!’”
It was a new experience for the veteran coach, who led Central Oklahoma to the national championship last year and arrived at TWU after 16 impressive seasons at UCO. She’d never seen fans so fired up for an offseason practice.
“It was overwhelming — the energy that was coming from the people coming out for a fall game, something I’d never experienced before,” she said. “But it was beautiful. I could tell the people love this softball team.”
It’s all been part of a transitional process for Stidham and TWU’s six returning players. A 51-14 season produced a laundry list of firsts, including Lone Star Conference regular-season and tournament titles, a South Central regional championship and the program’s first trip to the NCAA national tourney.
In the months since her arrival in Denton, Stidham and the players have focused on putting 2013 behind them and working toward the new season, which begins Saturday in San Antonio at St. Mary’s Division II College Classic.
Stidham is adjusting to new players and school colors while keeping her national title at UCO as a fond memory. The players are adjusting to a new coach while hoping to build off last year’s stellar season.
“The most important thing that first week when we met was telling them to not try to duplicate what they did last year,” Stidham said. “We can still accomplish the same goal and we can still get back to the national tournament, but we don’t have to do it the exact same way. They need to know this season won’t be the same, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still make our goals.”
Stidham has a record of coaching championship-caliber teams. Three of her Broncho teams reached nationals, with last year’s club running off nine straight wins to claim UCO’s first national title.
Her first Pioneer squad features a core of returning players who should give Stidham a shot at writing another successful chapter.
Four of TWU’s top six hitters from last season are back, and returning pitchers Brandie Lander and Katie Hines will anchor TWU’s three-woman staff. Senior shortstop Bailey Vrazel, who holds the TWU and LSC single-season and career steals records, is joined by junior first baseman Kendra Sancet as key veterans in the infield.
Also back is junior Sarah Wittenburg, who is being moved to catcher after holding down second base last year and playing in the outfield as a freshman. Amanda Ruiz, the Pioneers’ center fielder most of last year, will join Lander and Hines on TWU’s pitching staff.
“The six young ladies who are returning, they understand what it takes, they’re willing to work hard and they’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Stidham said.
Vrazel (.398) and Hines (.393) led the Pioneers in hitting last year while Ruiz (.335), Wittenburg (.310) and Sancet (.305) also batted above .300. Vrazel returns as the leadoff hitter for the Pioneers, who again will be expected to create havoc on the bases with her record-setting ability to steal.
Hines was last year’s RBI leader with 85 as well as the team’s top home run slugger with 25.
“Bailey leads off the field as well as she leads on the field,” Stidham said. “She’s definitely going to lead the offense as our leadoff hitter. It’s key that she get on base to start the game off right.
“Amanda is going to come in and do some pitching,” Stidham said. “She has stepped up. She pitched in junior college but didn’t pitch much last year. But she’s a senior, so she’s capable of doing that.”
Two key spots in the infield will be filled by newcomers. Freshman Alyssa Galaz was recruited to play in the outfield but is making the conversion to third base. Katy Stephens, the team’s other true freshman, is making the transition from shortstop to second base.
“Alyssa not only has had to come in as a freshman, but we also had to take her outfield skills and make her an infielder,” Stidham said. “She’ll have her work cut out for her, but she got better as we went along in the fall.”
Lander went 22-7 a year ago with a conference-leading 1.94 ERA, while Hines posted an 11-3 mark with 56 strikeouts. Last week, Lander and Hines were named the LSC’s preseason pitcher and player of the year, respectively.
“Brandie throws the ball hard,” Stidham said. “She’s had to do a lot of work in the offseason because she got called for some illegal pitching at the national tournament. Her back foot was coming off the rubber a bit. It’s a technical problem, but in the last couple of weeks I think she’s got it down. Now she can concentrate a lot more and just get better and better.
“Katie doesn’t throw as hard as Brandie, but she’ll throw [opposing batters] off key,” Stidham said. “She’ll throw a lot of drop balls and get a lot of ground balls and some easy outs. They’ll complement each other very well.”
Since arriving at TWU, one thing Stidham has avoided is showing her new players her national championship ring, instead keeping the focus on her new team.
“It’s still in the box,” she said. “But my husband, [assistant coach Jerod Stidham], has shown his off. I think he finally put it back in the box. I had to finally tell him that 2013 was over.”
The Pioneers will make their home debut at 3 p.m. Feb. 22 when they host St. Edward’s for a doubleheader.