Unable to replicate last season’s march to the national tournament after last weekend’s frustrating regional losses, TWU still enjoyed plenty of prosperity.
Advancing to the regional tournament for the third straight season after a third-place finish in the Lone Star Conference standings, this season will be remembered as a season of change for the Pioneers.
Coach Genny Stidham, in her first year at TWU after winning the national championship with Central Oklahoma, said the Pioneers (34-19) have much to be proud of.
“This year was definitely a success,” Stidham said. “It probably wasn’t as successful as the seniors would have liked it to be. I think the coaching styles that they were used to and the one that I came in with were polar opposites of each other. I tried my best to make sure it wasn’t a difficult change. It was successful, but their sights were set so high that sometimes when we took a loss, it kicked them in the gut a little more than they should have and it took them a little more to get back on track.”
Not showing as much consistency as they did last season and battling several injuries, the Pioneers made a shift in their offensive approach, going from a power attack to a shorter game employing more hit-and-runs and bunts.
“I think we needed that consistency, but I think the only really negative thing is when the athletes gain that success and something has worked for them, they don’t want to change,” Stidham said. “That’s really hard coming from my perspective, and I use Pat Summitt’s Definite Dozen philosophy.
“It says, ‘change is a must.’ If it worked last year, then we can try it this year, but if it’s not [working], we have to change. It was hard at times to get them to change.”
As the defending LSC tournament champions, the Pioneers stumbled in this year’s tourney, defeating Tarleton State in the first round before falling to Angelo State.
With the Pioneers earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA regional tournament at West Texas A&M, they drew Metropolitan State of Denver, which won 9-4 with a home run derailing TWU’s momentum.
“[West Texas’] wall out there in left field is extremely tall, and watching the ball, it was close to the foul line and it didn’t go over the wall,” Stidham said. “The ump is saying it’s a home run. That was hard to swallow, then [Metro State] hits two more home runs. I felt like it definitely did something to [pitcher] Brandie [Lander] at that time.”
That loss sent TWU into the losers bracket, where it saw a familiar face in Midwestern State and fell 14-13 in a back-and-forth contest.
“There’s a reason why there were so many LSC teams in the regional,” Stidham said. “I don’t know if there’s a stronger region around. At any point in time, anybody can beat anybody. I think by far it’s the toughest region when it comes to softball, and I think the LSC is the toughest conference out of all of them.”
Losing four seniors — pitchers Katie Hines and Lander, shortstop Bailey Vrazel and outfielder/pitcher Amanda Ruiz — the Pioneers have plenty of empty cleats to fill.
“They’re all big shoes to fill,” Stidham said. “Even with Ruiz being hurt, knowing she was constant in the lineup, I could count on her. Katie had a very successful season and finally set the school record for home runs. That’s a big loss. Brandie played through injuries and pain, and then you have Bailey — we’re never going to find someone to replace her. She’s irreplaceable. With her intensity and love for the game and her ability to steal a base at will, those are big losses.”
With the Pioneers bare at the pitching position, they’ll look to replenish through junior college transfers and freshmen while relying on returners Kendra Sancet and Sarah Wittenburg — the only two remaining from the national tournament run — as well as third baseman Alyssa Galaz, second baseman Katy Stephens and Tealey Farquhar, who were underclassmen this season.
With the glow of last season’s playoff push potentially fading, Stidham said she’d rather be underestimated than overestimated.
“A lot of people will write us off and it could be a struggle if we don’t get pitchers that we need in here, but I can tell you from my standpoint I’d rather always be underestimated and climbing that ladder than to be sitting on top of it and get knocked off,” Stidham said. “I’m not going to count this team out, because Kendra and Sarah have such a love for the game, [and] I don’t think you can ever count them out.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.