By Jim O'Hara
Botetourt County, Va.--They are the nation's top-ranked National Christian College Athletic Association softball team that won the NAIA national championship a year ago.
On top of that, though they are still in a transition phase toward becoming an NCAA Division II member and not eligible for NCAA postseason play, they have beaten the best of what the D2 ranks have to offer.
Without a doubt, there is a large target on the backs of the Shorter Lady Hawks when they take the field at the Botetourt (Va.) Softball Complex on Thursday for the NCCAA Softball National Championship.
"A little pressure, huh?" Shorter head coach Al Thomas said about what faces the Lady Hawks as they take a 43-9 overall record and the top-seed into the national tourney that brings together the top 10 NCAA teams from around the nation.
"Last year," the coach went on to say, "we weren't even a top-ranked team (heading into the NAIA national tournament.) No one looked at us as a team that was a contender. This year it's different."
The Lady Hawks, who receive a first-round bye thanks to their No. 1 status, gets its first test Thursday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. when they take on the winner of a morning clash between No. 4-ranked Campbellsville and Oklahoma Wesleyan. A victory in that game would send Shorter into a meeting with either Judson or Indiana Wesleyan on Friday.
The two remaining unbeaten teams from the two brackets of the double-elimination tourney being hosted by Bluefield College are scheduled square off Saturday morning at 10 a.m. with the championship game slated to start at 2 p.m.
Also included in the field is No. 2 seed Central Baptist, ranked fifth in the NCCAA rankings with a 28-10, while No. 7-ranked Simpson (342-24) is seeded third having upset and ousted NCCAA defending national champion California Baptist in the West Regionals. Union, Geneva and Trevecca Nazarene round out the teams seeking a crown.
"We've played Campbellsville, Union, Trevecca and Central Baptist over the years and most of those teams have the same coaches," said Thomas, "so we know something about what they do. But we know nothing about the rest of the teams.
"We try to get to know our opponent and see what their strengths are," he said, "but I'm always telling our players that we don't play an opponent; we play the ball which we've got to throw, catch and hit."
During the regular season, Shorter's first as an NCAA Division II program, the Lady Hawks did play good ball – and then some.
Competing in the nationally-known Gulf South Conference that produced last year's NCAA champion in Valdosta State, the Lady Hawks – they are ineligible to play for a conference tourney – finished at the top of the GSC standings with a conference-best 25-7 record.
Their success, however, wasn't limited to the Gulf South as Shorter posted wins over three of the top four nationally-ranked teams: No. 4 Valdosta, a sweep against No. 3 Armstrong Atlantic and a victory over top-ranked Indianapolis.
Last week in the NCCAA South Region tournament, the Lady Hawks cruised to the regional title blanking Southern Wesleyan 4-0 in the championship game.
"Our pitching held up and we did what we had to do to win," Thomas said. "One thing we had a problem with – we left a lot of runners on base and we know we have to do better this week."
An indication of just how potent the Lady Hawks have been this year is evident by the NCCAA region honors the team claimed with five players earning All-South Region awards and Thomas being named the region's Coach of the Year.
Not surprisingly, Shorter two aces on the mound were tabbed for region recognition: Christina Ezell, who carries a 16-4 record, 187 strikeouts and a 1.84 ERA into the national stage, and Maddie Bray, who is 15-4 with a stingy 1.38 ERA.
Grabbing All-Region attention at the plate are Lady Hawks Felicia Morris, Jackie Castaneda and Kayla Cooper after all three turned in solid offensive numbers: Morris leads Shorter with a sizzling .407 batting average and has a team-high 61 hits and 45 runs scored; Castanada hit .378 with nine home runs; and Cooper hit .379 and led the team with 16 stolen bases.
That's just the tip of Shorter's offensive spear as the Lady Hawks, who are hitting .315 as a team has seen Bre Johnson put together a .333 average and a team-high 11 homers and 39 RBI, Kendall Johnson hitting at a .323 clip and Amanda Dailey boasting a .302 mark.
"They've been steady throughout the year," Thomas said of the laid-back Lady Hawks. "This group is the most balanced team we've ever had. But that doesn't mean you'll win it all. You still have to go out and perform."
"This is a season in itself," he said on the national tournament. "We just have to be relaxed and prepared and do the things we're supposed to do."
All the latest information from the tournament can be found here.