Process under Richardson has taken LMU softball from average to legit

Published 1:35 pm Thursday, May 9, 2019

HARROGATE, Tenn. — It’s been a season to remember. A year that will be forever engraved in the Lincoln Memorial University softball history books as the greatest of all-time.

The sweetest part is there are still pages to be written.

“I’m just in awe,” LMU second baseman Ty-Kella Goins said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, we are still here.’ I’ve never experienced it before. This was our first year experiencing the conference tournament and now our first year experiencing regionals. It’s like, ‘Wow. We did this in one year.’ It’s crazy.

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The three-time All-South Atlantic Conference first team member also categorized it as mind-blowing, while ‘crazy’ is exactly how Goins’ teammate and best friend Justice Smith wrapped the season of firsts into one word.

The junior duo isn’t finished adding to that list as the Lady Railsplitters (35-13) head into the Division II Softball NCAA Regional for the first time in program history, aiming for that first postseason victory versus South Atlantic Conference opponent No. 6-seeded Wingate (32-17) at 3:30 p.m. Thursday on second-seeded Carson-Newman’s field in Jefferson City, Tenn.

“It’s just been almost like a dream to have experienced all the things that we have this year,” Smith said, “coming from a season where we didn’t even make it to the tournament last year. Now, we have a chance to go as far as the national tournament, if we keep working hard. It’s just crazy.”

From Average to Legit

The pair of defining leaders have been through the entire transformation, seeing the Lady Railsplitters at a low point — missing the conference tournament in their first two seasons — to now as the most successful LMU softball team to put on the uniform. Goins ventured over from North Carolina, and Smith hailed from Georgia to put the Lady Railsplitters on the map and make a name for themselves.

To say the least, it wasn’t the start the duo envisioned.

During their freshman year, the Lady Railsplitters were barely over .500. That duo then headed into their sophomore year with a new head coach, who was proven in Ritchie Richardson. The Hall of Fame coach started late into the process of his first season at the helm, but instantly started to instill his vision and coaching style into the current players.

“I thought of it almost like a new start,” Goins said. “I knew that I was only a sophomore, but I felt like this was our chance to start over with a coach that didn’t know anyone, so we had a chance to start clean.

“It was a little tough at first to get adjusted to a whole new coach when you’ve had a different one in the past,” Smith added, “but I think he really believes in us, even when he didn’t know us. He’s believed in this program from the beginning, and I feel like that’s what really just started it for all of us.”

It took a bit for everyone to buy in, and some never did, as that current roster won just one game more than Goins and Smith’s freshman season squad did.

But, after a year under Richardson with his first recruiting class coming to Harrogate, that process began to seep through, and the results spoke to the commitment.

“Everybody’s attitude towards this season,” said Goins of the difference from a year ago. “I feel like in Ritchie’s freshman year — not everybody on the team — but some people were not accepting his process. I feel like this year’s team bought into his process and actually believe in it.”

The belief has been apparent.

All of the accolades the Lady Railsplitters have hauled in and the firsts of being nationally ranked, appearing in the regionally poll and bringing home the SAC regular-season championship, plus now advancing to their first-ever NCAA Regional, prove the SAC Coach of the Year — the first LMU coach to receive the honor — has taken a bottom-tier team and put them in conversation with the best.

“The returners having a year to adjust to all the new processes, hitting plan and pitching plan,” Smith said, “and then us returners really believing in the plan, it made the freshman coming in truly buy into it, too. All of us buying into the idea: ‘We are going to be winners,’ is really what did it, I think.”

Missing Pieces

Richardson’s first season back at his Alma Mater was just a stepping stone, where he built the foundation for the future of LMU softball.

Players like Goins and Smith bought into his coaching style of focusing on the process, and then allowing the winning to be a byproduct of the dedication to being the best.

“[Richardson] doesn’t focus on winning the game but the process that you should be following,” said Smith, who was named the Female Breakthrough Athlete of the Year at the fourth-annual Lincoln Awards. “I think it’s easier to focus on that rather than winning because if you have one step you have to do during a game, and you know you just have to take care of this task next.

“For me as a pitcher, I only take it one pitch at a time. The rest of the game doesn’t matter. That applies to all the different processes that we have on the field. If you put it all together, you’re going to win games.”

The next step was bringing in new players to fill the gaping holes within the lineup and field to shape LMU into a championship-caliber team.

Joining Smith in the circle was a pair of pitchers in Faith Howe and Bailey Griffith, making it the biggest pitching staff since Smith arrived, while McKenzie Henry held down the duties behind the plate as an All-SAC honorable mention and Sierra Hucklebee dazzled in the shortstop hole and at the plate to be crowned SAC Freshman of the Year and an All-SAC honorable mention.

Another freshman in Kelsie Tuggle also made strides through the year, especially in a sweep at Carson-Newman March 20, and the four other freshmen — Tori Voiles, Sami West, Kelsey Hoskins and Victoria Mounce — round out the nine women who joined the process to change the culture.

“I was very excited for this freshman class because I knew that they were the holes that we needed,” Goins said, “and I knew they could produce, as well.”

Not Finished Yet

The emergence of the freshmen made the returners that much better as third baseman Emma Webb, who was named All-SAC second team, and Grace Cochran (All-SAC honorable mention) had standout seasons. Seniors Kelsie Hocutt (All-SAC honorable mention), Allie Jones and Jacie Pittman all had their senior moments, specifically in the Lady Railsplitters’ first-ever sweep of Lenoir-Rhyne April 13, and Bella Buccellato had a noticeable leap from her freshman season to her sophomore campaign.

Not to mention Goins’ season, which has her tied for the most doubles in all of Division II, or Smith’s best season yet in the circle for the Lady Railsplitters.

In all, it’s these individual performances that have the LMU softball team still practicing at Dorothy Neely while everyone else is cleaning out their dorms and headed home, and it’s more than refreshing for the Lady Railsplitters to say that.

“I think everybody is just very excited to just still be here,” Goins said, “even though class and school is over, and everybody is going home. We are still here to play. Me, personally, I’m very excited. You don’t know if you’ll get this chance again, so everyone is living in this moment and wanting to go as far as we possibly can right now.”

Going all the way to Denver, Colo., for the national championship is definitely on the table. The Lady Railsplitters, who were knocked out of the SAC Tournament by to-be champion Anderson, know that.

But they also are aware they have to stick to the process and not look too far ahead, or they will leave with the feeling they had in Salisbury, N.C., April 28 when the Trojans pounced on the regular-season champion Lady Railsplitters and ended their hope of leaving with another trophy under their belt.

“We saw in the conference tournament, if we don’t take it pitch-by-pitch that we will get beat,” Goins said. “Going into the regionals, we are like, ‘We’ll take this game pitch-by-pitch and take care of the process and don’t look ahead because we don’t know what’s next.”

LMU already had that one-and-done taste. The long faces on the bus ride home illustrated that, despite accomplishing so much this season.

While those feats are ones that will forever be etched in the record books, the Lady Railsplitters aren’t content. They know there’s still a lot of ball left to be played and so much more to prove to show that the new-and-improved LMU softball team is here to stay.

“Even though we’ve made it as far as anyone in our program history has, we aren’t done yet,” Smith said. “We aren’t satisfied with going to regionals and going two-and-out. We want to make it to the national championship. That’s our end goal — to win a national championship.”