Softball Rides a Wave

Eight seniors—six from either California or Hawaii
—are leading the Pirates into a tougher schedule.

Click here for team schedule

By Bethany Bradsher

 Kaui Tom
 Infielder Kaui Tom is one of six seniors from either California or Hawaii

ECU softball team that won 40 games last year returns eight seniors this season, and the Pirates will need every ounce of that experience to face a schedule made tougher with the addition of 2009 national champion Washington, runner-up Florida and other perennial powerhouses. And as the season progresses, the team will watch its new 1,000-seat stadium rising just beyond the left field fence.

As she commences her 13th season as the Pirates’ head coach, Tracey Kee has presided over a steady ascent of the softball program. In 2009 the women went 40–15 overall and 19–5 in Conference USA for the most conference wins in program history. They earned the No. 2 seed in the C-USA tournament and seemed poised for an easy road to the NCAA Tournament.

But they lost in the first round to lower-seeded University of Texas-El Paso, and that one stumble was enough to end their season. It was a blow for a team that defeated teams like Florida State and N.C. State and saw pitcher Toni Paisley named C-USA Pitcher-of-the-Week a record seven times. The selection committee attributed ECU’s exclusion to an insufficient strength of schedule, even though the Pirates faced six top programs in the regular season and beat three of them.

Kee had that history in mind when she put together a 2010 schedule that features matchups with Florida, Kansas, Penn State, Washington and California in the first month. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” she jokes about this year’s schedule.

“That was our setback last year—strength of schedule,” said senior Marina Gusman-Brown. “I guess our plan of attack is to jump on them from the start.”

Softball StadiumLofty goals, a new stadium

usman-Brown is at the heart of Kee’s other main victory strategy—leveraging the strength of a huge senior class with a distinct West Coast flair. Of the eight seniors on the roster, six are from either Hawaii or California.

It’s an unusually large and experienced senior class that comprises the heart of the Pirate lineup. Six or seven of those players are expected to be starters, and the two pitchers—junior Paisley and sophomore transfer Faith Sutton—also have put in a considerable number of innings. Paisley was the featured pitcher in 2009 while Sutton played at UNC Chapel Hill her freshman season. There is nothing young about this squad, no talk whatsoever about a building year. This is the year that each senior has been building toward—and they can’t wait to see what they can accomplish.

“I’m excited,” said outfielder Christina Merrida, a senior from Woodland Park, Calif. “I think our senior class is really strong. There’s a lot of leadership, a lot of experience. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this for the last four years. I want to go out with a bang.”

The senior class has its eye on milestones like a C-USA championship trophy and a long trip through the postseason, but the one distinction they can’t be sure they will reach is the chance to play in the new stadium. The grading and preparation for the project began in the fall, with a projected completion date of May, said Jimmy Bass, the senior associate athletics director for external operations. That progress hinges not only on the efficiency of the construction but on the numerous licenses and approvals that must go through state government channels.

The new softball complex (above right), which will resemble the nearby baseball stadium, will feature grandstand seating for 1,000 spectators as well as a structure housing the press box, toilets and concessions. Bullpens, dugouts, field lighting and a scoreboard also will be constructed.  A batting cage building is planned but may be built in a future phase along with a team building. Chances are slim that the Lady Pirates will take the field in the new stadium this season, because their last home game is May 6.

But even if they have to watch from the stands in the new stadium next year, this year’s seniors will know they played a part in establishing the winning tradition that the team will carry into its new home.

“I think when it (stadium) gets done it’s going to attract a lot of excitement and maybe bring some more people to our games,” Merrida said.

Tracey KeyA new focus on offense

s far as the seniors are concerned, there isn’t any energy to waste on the things they can’t control. One thing they can control is their hitting, which the coaching staff emphasized during the offseason. Kee (left) said it was weakness on offense that led to some heartbreaking losses last season. While the defense can always use sharpening, the Pirates finished second in the conference in fielding percentage last year and are returning most of those strong position players. “I’m anticipating a really great defensive lineup,” Kee said.

With so many senior leaders and so many women who are far from home (70 percent of the total roster comes from California or Hawaii), the camaraderie on this Lady Pirates squad is even more crucial than normal. They’re close because they have been playing together for a long time and because they have supported each other through each phase of the adjustment to living on the East Coast. The four Hawaiian seniors live together, Gusman-Brown said, and when they’re not studying or playing ball they’re planning and preparing authentic island meals.

In their efforts to maintain a sense of home in their college town, Gusman-Brown, Cristen Aona, Kaui Tom and Charina Sumner make dishes like “lau lau,” a traditional steamed pork wrapped in laurel leaves (in Greenville, they substitute spinach) and another favorite that combines fried tuna with cilantro and onion. They eat a lot of rice, Gusman-Brown said, and their house features Hawaiian decorative touches and customs.

“Everybody knows that they need to take their shoes off before they come into the house, because that’s what we do at home,” she said.

ECU’s West Coast connection becomes more pronounced each year, as successful and happy Hawaii and California softball players attract other talented recruits from those states. This year’s recruiting class, announced in November, includes six players­—four from California and two from Hawaii.

Two of the 2010 seniors do hail from eastern North Carolina, and they enjoy the West Coast exposure while still representing the East Coast flavor that their teammates have adopted. Bethel native Tiffany Shaw, a catcher with one of the top fielding percentages among returning players, said that she has seen improvements in her confidence and ability every year. And Nicole Jordan, who transferred from Pitt Community College as a junior, said that despite their cultural differences, the team has banded together with a common objective—to win so many games that their place on the national stage cannot be denied.

“We all have the same goals in mind,” said Jordan, a Jamesville native. “We have a good work ethic. We work really hard and push each other, and I think we have a lot of drive. Coming in second has left everybody really hungry. We were so close.”