By Jim O'Hara
ROME--That hurting feeling is still being felt by the team, Shorter head softball coach Al Thomas is sure of.
After all, having won one national championship a year ago, the Lady Hawks came up one win short this time around of adding another crown, seeing what had been an impressive first season playing as an NCAA Division II program and as the National Christian College Athletic Association’s top-ranked team end in heartbreak.
Yet Thomas fully understands that despite seeing his team take the field an incredible six times in a 24-hour period, the last one resulting in a defeat in the NCCAA national championship game last weekend in Virginia, the Lady Hawks’ pain will quickly be replaced with the sense of pride in what they have accomplished.
“It still stings and it may take them a couple of weeks to put it behind them,” Thomas said about the Lady Hawks’ 4-1 loss to Union in the NCCAA title game that closed out an otherwise stellar 48-11 season. “But how many people get the opportunity to play for a national championship two years in a row? What this team has done is remarkable.”
“They never quit,” the coach said. “Our backs were against the wall, but they never quit.”
Just how determined the Lady Hawks were to stay the course no matter what is evident in what the players themselves accomplished reaping a plethora of honors for their skills on the diamond.
Named as NCCAA First Team All-Americans were juniors Felicia Morris and Christina Ezell, who respectively led the Lady Hawks at the plate and on the mound. While Morris finished the season hitting a team-high .409 batting average and a .667 slugging percentage, Ezell pitched a hefty 186 innings to record an 18-5 record with 219 strikeouts and a 1.72 ERA.
The same hitting-pitching combination Shorter had also produced a pair of NCCAA Second Team All-Americans – junior Jackie Castaneda and sophomore Maddie Bray, with Castanada batting .355 and Bray going 17-5 and posting a team-best 1.23 ERA.
Ezell, Morris and senior Whitney Hood were also selected to the NCCAA All-Tournament team, while an amazing nine Lady Hawks were recognized for their work in the classroom by the NCCAA as Scholar-Athletes: Hood, senior Courtney Bailey, senior Jessica Bowman, sophomore Brooke Crawford, junior Kacey Hawkshead, junior Katie Kiser, junior Kristen Little, junior Kellee Stone and junior Kristen Wright.
The postseason honors come on the heels of Shorter’s historic debut in the nation’s toughest Division II league, the Gulf South Conference, where the Lady Hawks finished with a conference best 27 wins and had the momentum – they had won 12 of their last 14 regular season outings – heading into their first-ever NCCAA postseason appearance.
Shorter opened its “second season” sweeping to the NCCAA South Region title to advance to the national tournament held just outside Roanoke, Va., and quickly made a statement blanking Campbellsville 5-0 in the Lady Hawks’ opener last Thursday.
But a combination of rain and wind wound up pushing the team to the brink over the next two days.
After rain delayed the start of Shorter’s next game on Friday against Judson, a stiff wind blowing in to the plate contained the Lady Hawks’ power as they saw several potential home-run shots stay inside the park as Judson stunned Shorter with a 1-0 setback.
“They played us at the fence the entire game,” said Thomas.
The Lady Hawks had little time to mull over the defeat and responded by winning their next two games in Friday’s long day, shutting out Simpson University of California 5-0 and capping the day blanking Campbellsville 7-0.
Less than 12 hours later the Lady Hawks were back on the field knowing that they needed three straight wins to secure the crown. Shorter took care of business in the first two clashes, gaining some payback eliminating Judson with a 5-0 decision, then handing Union (Tenn.) – like Shorter, is a provisional member of the GSC – its first defeat of the tournament with a 1-0 loss that set up an immediate showdown for the title that Union eventually claimed.
“The bottom line,” said Thomas, “is that you just can’t play six games in 24 hours.”
The coach, however, is well aware that the Lady Hawks have time on their side.
As the team starts to turn its attention to the future, the Lady Hawks will do so knowing that the core of this year’s squad will return to make another run at the NCCAA championship and wrap up their final NCAA and GSC transition year with a bigger statement.
“We are excited about next year,” Thomas said. “We’ll be losing some quality people but we have a very talented class coming in to join some great players who are coming back.”