Thursday, July 24, 2014

Team USA Women's Baseball Tryout Roster Announced

The 40-member roster for Team USA women's baseball tryouts was announced last week. The highlight of the team's competitions will be the Women's Baseball World Cup in Japan in September.

The roster includes many names that will be familiar to even casual softball fans. Kendall Dawson, who was the starting catcher for the 2012 WCWS-winning Alabama Crimson Tide squad, is one that particularly stands out.

In a couple of weeks, we'll have an in-depth look at the US Women's Baseball team thanks to an interview with Alexa Maldonado, who was a member of the 2012 team and is again on this year's tryout roster.

Notable names on the roster include Jill Barrett, who is currently tearing up the NPF as a member of the Akron Racers; Dawson; Jenna Marston, a Mizzou grad and 2013 NPF draft pick that chose not to go pro; and 2012 holdovers Anna Kimbrell (UAB '13); Maldonado (Notre Dame '12); Clarisa Navarro (Arkansas '14); and Michelle Snyder (Florida State '09).

For a look at the complete roster, click here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Trio of Coaching Moves

A trio of big-name coaching moves have been made over the last several days, and we've yet to cover them. So today, we're going to combine those three into a single article to make sure you're up-to-date on all of the collegiate off-season's goings-on.

Stake Takes Reins at Valpo
L-R: Roark, Fico, & Stake
Another Division 1 head coaching position has been filled, as former Hofstra assistant Kate Stake was named the head coach at Valparaiso. Stake brings a veteran's resume to the position, with eight seasons as a D1 assistant under her belt. This is her first head coaching job. Prior to the last two seasons serving under Bill Edwards at Hofstra, Stake was on the staff at the United State Military Academy ("Army") & Eastern Illinois. At Valpo, she replaces Jordan Stevens who led the squad to a 24-34 record in his final season at the helm of the program.

Fico to Mentor Beard, Jaguar Staff
Though a few days old, this one was incredibly popular on Facebook. Former LSU pitching standout and 2013 Akron Racers #1-overall draft pick Rachele Fico has been named the pitching coach at South Alabama. Fico began her coaching career fresh out of school as a graduate assistant at LSU last season. This is her first full-time position. She assumes the position vacated by Mark Ryal, who spent one season in Mobile before moving on to Oklahoma State this off-season. Fico will mentor Jaguar stud hurler Farish Beard, as well as help guide the USA pitching staff as they must make up for the loss of All-American Hannah Campbell.

Roark Replaces Pauly @ Upstate
And finally yesterday, Chris Hawkins' South Carolina-Upstate announced a new pitching coach in ex-Virginia Tech great Kenzie Roark. Following the retirement of Rick Pauly, the position came open and Roark will now assume responsibilities. Despite the losses of Hannah Alexander and Anna Miller, the 2014 staff ace, the Spartan staff still boasts Lexi Shubert, a standout freshman hurler in 2014, and several incoming freshman and dual threat offensive players that can also toss from the circle. After a year of graduate coaching at her alma mater, Roark spent the past several years as the assistant coach at East Tennessee State. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chelsea Hawkins Steps Into Justin's World

There's a stockpile of previously-conducted interviews in a folder on my desktop, and today I have the privilege to feature one of South Carolina's finest daughters, Chelsea Hawkins.

Photo cred: J Blas Photography
A starting outfielder for three of her four seasons under Beverly Smith, Hawkins was always at or near the team lead in many offensive categories. Defensively, she was sure-handed with only three fielding errors to her name in those same four years.

For those of you who didn't pay attention to or don't remember the postseason, here's a link to a write-up of the USF game we mention more than once in the interview.

As is often said but rarely true, Hawkins is a social media star, with more than 1,100 followers and one of my all-time favorite Vine videos to her name. Since leaving SC, she continues to impact the game by giving individual lessons to young girls. (More info on her future plans are part of the interview, below).

You can follow Chelsea on social media by clicking on any of these links to take you to her profile on each of these respective sites: Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. Vine.

Justin’s World: How did you first get started playing softball? Was softball always "your sport”?
Chelsea Hawkins: I first got started playing when I was handed a bat at 4. It was something that just came easy to me. I fell in love with the feeling of having a bat in my hand. It's always been my first love, but I also played basketball and volleyball.

JW: This one is phrased simply, but the answer may not be. Now that your playing career is done, what will you miss the most?
CH: What I'll miss the most is simply having 20 something sisters to come and compete with every day. More importantly, just getting to do what I love and also represent USC at the same time….Having the little girls who look up to me is really something special. I love knowing I am a role model for them.

JW: Why did you choose SC?
CH: I've always been a Gamecock! My aunt was also someone I always looked up to; she played here starting in 2001, so she was a big part in making me want to continue my career in college.

JW: What was your favorite thing about playing in the SEC?
CH: Just the competition itself, knowing there is no game guaranteed to one team. Anyone can beat anyone on any given day.

JW: What about playing ball after college? Is that something you thought about or were/are interested in?
CH: It was something I had thought about before- coaches told me I should consider it, but I want to get my Masters degree and it's something I am scared to put off. I want to do it now and go ahead and get my foot in the door for coaching jobs.

JW: How do you plan to stay involved with the game of softball now that you're collegiate playing days are done? Do you think you might coach at some level?
CH: Yes! That is what I want to do, coach college ball.

JW: Let’s say you were given the opportunity to go back in time and change one moment, one happening from your life and/or career. What would you want to change?
CH: I would change the USF game obviously. Both teams play hard, but overall I think we deserved that win. Julie pitched an outstanding game, hitters were making good adjustments, and it would have put us in the final game. FSU is a great team, but I think we would have given them a good game in the final games, would have had the chance to come out on top.

JW: If you can, describe the feeling when USF came from behind and beat y’all. It’s got to be incredibly difficult to know your career is done, but to have it end like that? Was that even harder for you to stomach?
CH: It was honestly the feeling of getting punched in the gut. I think it was more because I didn’t expect it, none of us did. I thought we had the win, so I didn’t have time to think about how this could really be my last game in the last inning. One minute I was ready to go all out to make the last out, and then the next minute I was walking off the field. It all happened so fast.

JW: Do you have any superstitions? Have to eat the same meal before a game, can’t step on the foul lines, same routine every time you step into the batter’s box, etc?
CH: I’m sure if anyone has watched our games, they see me killing some bubblegum, so one is that I have to have Dr. Pepper gum for every game (don’t knock it until you try it, it’s delicious). I have the same routine every time I go up to bat. I stare at the pitcher and look her right in the eye, then I put one foot in the box, take a deep breath, look at a small part on the bat that says, “One Pitch” then I step in the box.

JW: Let's say you were given the opportunity to spend a full twenty-four hours in another person's shoes. Who would that person be and why would you want to trade places for a day?
CH: Ellen. She is so funny and even though her job would be hard not to enjoy, she is hard working. And plus, she meets the coolest people, and also helps in any way she can for them to reach their dreams; I would love to do that for people.

JW: If you were stranded on a deserted island (Robinson Crusoe-style), but were allowed to take three things with you, what would you take? No boats, no phones.
CH: Steak, my puppy and my little brother. I'm pretty handy so I could somehow build something if I needed to, I love steak, and I'm too much of a people person to be alone.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Laura Winter Joins Fordham Coaching Staff

Following a stellar four-year playing career for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Laura Winter has already accepted her first coaching position. In an announcement today, Winter was named the new pitching coach for the Fordham Rams.

Winter's career as a player has been well-documented and she joins an already star-studded list of 2014 grads that have joined the coaching ranks fresh out of school. Winter was a member of the all-conference first team in each of her four seasons, leading the Big East for her first three seasons and the ACC in her fourth and final, after the Irish changed conferences. Winter also was a four-time all-conference selection, taking home second-team nods in her freshman & sophomore seasons and first-team selections in her final two seasons. A two-time pitcher of the year, she was honored as the conference Player of the Year following her junior season.

Statistically, Winter was one of the finest pitchers in the country and certainly in Notre Dame history. A 112-34 lifetime record and an ERA of 2.12 are quite impressive in their own right, but her strikeout/walk ratio of more than 8/1, as the school's release notes, could be her most impressive statistic.

Winter was drafted 7th overall in the 2014 National Pro Fastpitch draft, selected by the Akron Racers. She had to forgo her rookie season due to a surgery following the collegiate season, and looks to make her pro debut in 2015. (Under NPF rules, the Racers will still hold exclusive rights to her.)

Mississippi State Adds Samantha Ricketts

Mississippi State head coach Vann Stuedeman has made a dynamite addition to her coaching staff, bringing Samantha Ricketts on board as an assistant and hitting coach.

Samantha Ricketts
Ricketts spent the past three seasons as the hitting coach at Wichita State, after two seasons on the staff of her alma mater Oklahoma Sooners. She was also selected in the 2009 National Pro Fastpitch draft and spent two professional seasons with the Akron Racers.

The Shockers' offense showed immense improvement in 2014 under Ricketts' guidance, as the team posted a .314/56/291 statistical line. Sophomore transfer Cacy Williams had an excellent season leading the squad offensively, with a .424 average and fifteen home runs.

Ricketts' own playing career was a stellar one, as she ended her career with her name scrawled throughout the Sooner record books. A multi-time All-American, Ricketts also was a top-three finalist for National Player of the Year in 2007. She was the 12th-overall pick by the Racers in the 2009 draft.

Samantha is the oldest of three Ricketts sisters, a trio that have combined to make Ricketts one of the most well-known names in softball in recent years. Middle sister Stephanie enjoyed a multi-sport career at the University of Hawaii, starring in softball for four seasons and playing women's basketball as a fifth-year senior. Youngest sister Keilani was without a doubt one of the greatest players in recent memory during her own career at Oklahoma, and she continues that career in the present day at the professional level with the USSSA Pride in the NPF and Shokki Softball in Japan.

Samantha replaces Beth Mullins at MSU, after Mullins left Starkville to become head softball coach at Troy. The Bulldogs finished the 2014 season with a 39-21 record and the #10 seed in the conference tournament. They were assigned to the Lafayette regional and were eliminated there with a 1-2 record.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Nikki Palmer Steps Into Justin's World

In one season, Nikki Palmer went from virtual unknown to a star in the softball coaching world. In her first season at the helm of the Utah Valley Wolverines, Palmer's squad posted a dismal 18-42 record, yet thanks to a fifth-place conference seeding, advanced to the conference tournament and took all by surprise by marching to the title game and taking home the championship.

A young team, with nine freshmen, Palmer's squad knocked off #1 seed New Mexico State twice en route to the title. They were placed in the Eugene regional, and despite a two-and-out NCAA result, showed promise for coming seasons.

After the season, I talked to Coach Palmer about a wide variety of things. Believe it or not, even after years of asking what I've dubbed the "Robinson Crusoe question", Coach Palmer managed to give an answer that I had not heard before. Check out the full interview below, and you can follow Palmer through her Twitter or Facebook pages, or by listening to her radio show, "643 DP Radio", found here.

Justin’s World: How old were you when you first started playing softball? When did it become very evident that this was something you could excel at? 

Coach Nikki Palmer: I was 8. I loved it even though it took a long time at 8 years old to figure out the concept of the game. 

JW: While you were still playing, in high school and college, was becoming a coach something you had even imagined?
NP: I always knew I would be good at coaching, but at those ages I never really could figure out exactly what it was that I was meant to do. 

JW: Do you think that being a catcher helps you be a better coach, already having experience leading the team on the field & calling a game? 
NP: Absolutely! I did a lot with my pitching staff and also with my younger catchers while I was a SA. I was trained by the upperclassmen catchers before me and in turn I learned how to pass that along to the younger players as well. 

JW: 2014 was your first year as UVU head coach; what kind of goals did you set at the beginning of the year and how did the team do at meeting them? 
NP: The main goal we set was to win the WAC so obviously we did well at that. Many of our goals, as goals tend to be, were high and big so meeting those was not as successful. For example we wanted to sweep at home. I think overall the girls stuck to the plan in some tough situations. 

JW: Y'all went undefeated, 4-0 in the conference tournament and beat the #1 seed TWICE. One would think that after one loss, they would come out with a chip on their shoulder and play that much harder the second time around. What did you do to prepare for that and counter it in the championship game? 
NP: That is exactly what we prepared for. We knew that although we beat NMSU the first time around, we didn't get lucky. We knew that they would come back swinging hard and have that chip on their shoulder which would make them tougher to beat and really they were tough that championship game. 

JW: With an 18-40 season's record, regrettably, I've personally heard a few people that didn't think y'all belonged in the tournament. What do you say to the naysayers? 
NP: Honestly, it really doesn't matter what others think. At the core of this team there was a tremendous amount of talent that didn't find its click moment until late in the season. We never were and still are not worried about what others think. Like you said, we defeated the number 1 team twice in the tournament so we earned our spot. 

JW: Even though y'all lost in the Regionals, how does just making the tournament give your squad renewed confidence and just excitement for next year? 
NP: The girls have a good taste of what the post season and regionals is like and they were not satisfied at all with going 2 and out so I think it will only propel us next year and make us better. 

JW: Sum up, if you will, the Wolverines' 2014 season in three words. 
NP: Tenacious, Teamwork and Heart

JW: Let's say you were stranded on a deserted island (Robinson Crusoe-style, ya know), but you had the opportunity to take three things with you. No boats, no phones. What would you take? 

NP: I guess I would have to take a friend to keep me company, Bat/Ball/Glove to play on the beach and a plane to leave!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Baylor's Strickland Throws Out First Pitch @ MLB Game

After a spectacular run in the 2014 postseason, the Baylor Lady Bears softball team have been the talk of Texas. Their incredibly impressive comeback from a seven-run deficit against Kentucky in the Women's College World Series set a new NCAA postseason record.

Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers honored the Lady Bears at a game last week, and star shortstop Jordan Strickland threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Baylor Athletics posted a three-and-a-half minute video with some behind the scenes footage of the day, as well as of Strickland's pitch (skip to 2:43 in the video if you want to see just the pitch).

Here's the video, courtesy of Baylor Athletics: