NASHVILLE, Tenn.-Playing fields of green grass are gradually being covered by leaves of orange, red and brown.
Sunshine is in shorter supply. Fall’s chill is around the corner. And softball, a sport of spring, has ended fall workouts with an 8-0 record.
As Lipscomb Lady Bisons coach Kristin Ryman, pitching coach Paige Cassady and graduate assistant Mollie Mitchell look back on a fall that included six freshmen and one junior college transfer, one word seems to sum up the season and will provide a warm feeling as cold weather approaches is “coachable”.
“When the girls choose to come early before practice or stay late after to get in extra work, we notice that as coaches,” Ryman said. The improvements are not going to be overnight, but after a while, the work they are putting in is going to pay off.
“Some of them are starting to see that, and it makes them that much more likely to listen and try to make the adjustments we are asking of them. But they have to be the ones to initiate it, and they have to be open to the idea that they all have weaknesses that can be improved. And if they work with a purpose, they are going to end up being much more well-rounded players."
Ryman is concerned about the youth of her team which only has two seniors - outfielder Bree Thurman and infielder Kelsey Cartwright.
“Anytime you are dealing with freshmen, and even sophomores, how coachable they are right off the bat, and really throughout their careers, can make a huge difference in how much better they can get,” Ryman said. “There are little things in practice that we go over every day from a hitting standpoint, pitching, defense, throwing, base running or whatever it may be.
“It is very difficult at this level to work with players who come in with the mindset of what I have always learned is the way to do it. There are some who will show resistance when we ask them to make changes. It is really good to see players who are willing to try something different to improve their games.”
Freshman outfielder Dee Baddley, 5-foot-3, has shown a strong desire to take her game to the next level since fall practice began and is in competition for playing time this season.
“I feel like a lot of people at this level overlooked Dee because of her size,” Ryman said. “I feel like she is one of those who has come in with an open mind. She just wants to learn. She wants to get as good as she can possibly get. That is going to pay off for her.
“She comes to practice every day and asks good questions. She has made huge strides this fall, mostly with her hitting. Coming in, she was behind a little bit. She has worked extremely hard.”
Baddley, like most of her fellow freshmen, possesses speed on the base paths. But the key is to be able to get on base in order to use that speed.
“She is a slapper,” Ryman said. “And the whole point of being a slapper is to put the ball in play, preferably on the ground, to put pressure on the defense,” Ryman said. “She had a few holes in her swing where she was hitting under the ball a lot more and not really using her strengths.
“We have worked a lot on her bat angle and her hands to make sure she is coming down through the ball and using the ground as her friend. There have been times when she hasn’t got on base, but she is having better quality at bats.”
Another freshman whose willingness to learn has caught Ryman’s attention this fall is Madison Wray who can play in either the infield or outfield.
"Madison had a few setbacks at the very beginning of the fall, but has worked extremely hard to catch up,” Ryman said. “Her hitting has improved a ton in such a short period of time which is great to see. She listens and tries to make adjustments, and as a freshman, that is so incredibly important. She has made huge strides so far, and we are excited to see how much better she can get."
Catcher Mickey Bell, also a freshman, saw most of the work behind the plate this fall as Haley Elliott continues to recover from shoulder problems.
“Mickey has been able to handle it,” Ryman said. “Mickey has taken the position as her own.
“We see her grow every day from a vocal and leadership standpoint to how she moves and reacts and how she works with the pitchers. Those are all things that Mollie has been working hard with her on how to adapt to the pitchers and to talk with each one of them.”
Freshman pitcher Tanner Sanders has been working with Cassady, who is in her first year as pitching coach for the Lady Bisons.
“As a coaching staff we talk at the end of practice every day about what we have seen,” Ryman said. “Paige is always saying positive things about Tanner.
“She is a sponge. She has such raw talent. She is soaking up everything she can.”
Coaches tell their players that the off-season is where good players get better. Such has been the case for sophomore outfielder Brianne Welch who spent the summer in vigorous workouts. Ryman rates her as possibly the best conditioned player on the team.
“Brianne came into this year after being in a tough position last season,” Ryman said. “She was a very good defensive player, but really struggled in terms of consistency with her hitting. It made it hard for us to keep us on the field as much as we wanted her out there.
“We told her she really had to put a lot of emphasis on her hitting during the summer. She has come back with an open mind.”
Defensively, Welch is still playing aggressive in the outfield in addition to becoming more of a force at the plate.
“She has the mindset that she can get to any ball,” Ryman said. “And we want to see that aggressive mentality out there. She is a bigger factor now than she was last spring because her hitting has come along more.”
Junior first baseman Kristen Sturdivant has returned with the idea that this is a new year with new things to accomplish.
“Kristen has learned from the past and she is challenging herself more to take the next step forward,” Ryman said. “She has responded extremely well from a hitting standpoint. She is working hard on the details.
“Everyone can see the power of her swing. But last year it was a matter of consistency _ limiting her strikeouts, putting the ball in play and making things happen. Her attitude and outlook on things has been refreshing.”
Ryman thinks the trait of being coachable starts with a few and, hopefully, spreads through the team. She thinks that the way the coaches are received by the players is the key.
“We don’t pretend to be a perfect coaching staff, but the more they listen and trust what we are telling them to do, the more it pays off,” Ryman said. “We see the ones who make the effort. All of a sudden it raises the bar as to how much better a player can get.
“It is part of the culture we try to create. We want them to have respect for themselves and have respect for what we are asking them to do. It’s all about attitude and how each player approaches the game.”
Written by Mark McGee, Senior Publisher/Director of Media Relations.