After advancing to the national tournament last season where they lost the only two games they played, the TWU Pioneers have plenty of motivation to make another long run.
But with a new cast of characters fused with six returners, the Pioneers are searching for the incentive to raise their game to the next level. That quest begins today in Canyon with the Lone Star Conference tournament at West Texas A&M’s Schaeffer Park.
The Pioneers (33-16) earned the No. 3 seed with an 18-10 conference record and will face No. 6 seed Tarleton State (20-29, 10-17 LSC) at 11 a.m. today, with the winner advancing to play No. 2 seed Angelo State at 4 p.m.
TWU won the season series 3-1 against the TexAnns and will look to emulate last season’s success that saw the Pioneers beat Cameron, Midwestern State and West Texas on the road to the conference tournament championship.
After coaching Central Oklahoma to its first national title last season, TWU head coach Genny Stidham knows what’s required this time of the year.
“I think we haven’t played our best ball yet, so I’m hoping it comes together in the next week, because that’s all we have left,” Stidham said. “Hopefully we’re the team that can put it all together — the hitting, the base running and the defense — and come out with some wins. You have to find that motivation. You always have the heart, but you have to find that motivation and that something that causes you to dig down deep that says, ‘Hey we’re better than this and we’re going to prove that we’re better than this.’”
TWU seniors Bailey Vrazel, Katie Hines, Brandie Lander and Amanda Ruiz and juniors Kendra Sancet and Sarah Wittenburg return from last season’s trip to Salem, Va., with a chip on their shoulders and hunger in their hearts.
“Not playing how you want to and not having everything pan out like we wanted, experiencing that level of competition and knowing you were completely capable of winning it — yeah, it left a bitter taste in our mouth,” Vrazel said of the national tournament. “We don’t want to do what we did last year. We just have to get there, and it starts with the conference tournament.”
Stidham has seen that passion burning in the returning players since she took the job in August.
“There’s six of them out there, and I think that’s been their plan and their expectations since the day I stepped on campus,” she said. “People always want to congratulate you after you go to the national tournament, even when you fall short.
“But for an athlete and a coach and you’re that close and you fall short, you can’t accept and understand the pride at that point in time because all you know as a competitor is that you’ve fallen short. These girls still have that same mentality. I feel like this season they haven’t gotten to enjoy that because they want to get back to where they were. I see it day in and day out that those girls want to get back.”
Although TWU didn’t match last year’s feat of earning the top seed in the LSC tournament, Vrazel said the Pioneers can still reach their potential.
“We came in this year knowing we didn’t have to take the same route to get to where we want to be,” Vrazel said. “All we wanted to do was to make postseason, and that’s where we are. Any team from here on out can go to the World Series. Last year was great, but we’re a new team and we’re at where we want to be at this point.”
Stidham said advancing is going to take a new level of mental fortitude.
“I have told this team over and over that they have the capabilities,” Stidham said. “We just have to be a little bit smarter with the decisions we make. A lot of it is just mental. It’s taking the time and effort, understanding the situation and looking where the runners are. When you’re prepared like that, good things will happen. We’ve got to fine-tune it so that we start making smarter plays in certain situations.”
Vrazel, who’s seen the highs and lows of the conference tournament, said it’s crucial that the Pioneers don’t look past anyone and take things one inning at a time.
“Of course, we all set that as a team goal that we wanted to get back there,” Vrazel said. “Things can happen, but the only difference is being prepared to reach that goal, by taking the small steps to get there. You have to play every game like it’s your last, and if you can do that, then you have a really good shot at being at the end.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.