JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Most people don’t watch a favorite television show 17 times. So imagine what it would be to look at the biggest disappointments in your college career over and over.
Last season Lipscomb’s Paige Neely found herself at the plate in the deciding game for the Atlantic Sun Softball Tournament Championship against USC Upstate. The winner would go to the NCAA Tournament. The loser would pack up the equipment and wait for next season.
When Neely went to the plate there were two outs and there were two Lady Bisons on base. They trailed 7-5. Neely hit a ball to dead center field, as far you can hit the ball at Smith Stadium at Draper Diamond without clearing the fence. Neely was called out and the season was over.
She held her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart to show how close she had come to winning the game in dramatic fashion.
Later that night, alone in her dorm room, she quietly watched that last at bat multiple times.
“I do remember it was a full count,” Neely said. “One of the strikes should have been called a ball. I remember swinging at that last pitch and then thinking I should have swung a little harder.
"I was definitely a little bitter. I used that in a way in moving forward. This summer I thought about it for a while longer. I finally decided just to let it go. You can’t do anything about the past.”
Move ahead to the start of the 2014 season. Neely, batting second in the order against Miami (Ohio) drives the first pitch she sees over the center field fence.
Redemption? She thinks that is too strong a word.
“It would be an awesome story to look at it that way,” Neely said. “But I didn’t expect to hit a home run.
“I was in complete shock. I saw the ball and swung at it. My mouth was open wide as I was running the bases”
Lipscomb softball coach Kristin Ryman wasn’t surprised to hear that Neely had that last at bat on automatic replay. And she suspects that the memory of how that game ended did drive Neely during the summer and fall.
“She thrives in situations like that,” Ryman said. “To come up a bit short was something she didn’t take lightly.”
Just doing the job
Neely hasn’t slowed down since that first pitch of the season. Heading into this weekend’s Atlantic Sun Conference opening series at North Florida she is batting a team-leading .423. She also leads the team in hits with 22, doubles with four and RBI with 16. Her .654 slugging percentage is also the highest on the team.
The Lady Bisons, 13-2, play a doubleheader against North Florida, 14-3, starting at noon Saturday. Sunday they close out the series with a single game at 11 a.m.
Going back to that crucial at bat last season Ryman stresses there was no one she would have wanted at the plate more than Neely.
“When she is in the zone she is that player that you can’t get out,” Ryman said. “And, if you do get her out, she is going to make something good happen in the process.
“She can move runners. She can get a sac fly. She can hit to both sides of the field well. There are not many weaknesses in her swing. She always has a plan when she goes to the plate. You can almost see the wheels turning.”
Like many athletes who excel, Neely can be found doing a lot of extra work beyond the normal practice times. She doesn’t like to draw attention to those sessions.
“She wants to be perfect and excel so badly,” Ryman said. “She is out hitting on her own when no one else knows about it. She doesn’t want anybody to know about it. She just wants to do her thing, work hard and get better.
“She doesn’t like attention. Every player likes to be recognized for her hard work, but she just wants to go about her business and help the team win games. What you see is what you get with her.”
Putting the team first
Neely transferred to Lipscomb in January of 2013. She had been an Ohio Valley Conference All-Freshman performer at Austin Peay where she played shortstop. She was immediately moved to center field when she joined the Lady Bisons but finished the season playing third base. She was honored as a First Team All-A-Sun selection.
“Not one person can say Paige hasn’t earned her spot,” Ryman said. “She works hard and she produces. You definitely want her at the plate with the game on the line.
“She is definitely an all-conference player. I know the role she plays on our team and I know where our team stacks up in the conference. She is one of the best players in the conference.”
Neely’s work ethic is also enhanced by her strong mental approach to the game.
“She is pretty smart about thinking through what pitches she wants to hit, what pitches she is looking for and making adjustments in the same at bat,” Ryman said. “That is very difficult to do in the game of softball and she does it as well as anybody.
“She is always analyzing her own game. She is always thinking. She knows the game very well. She loves challenges.”
Neely is not the prototypical No. 2 hitter, but she has found a comfort zone there.
“It is unusual to have a hitter like her in the No. 2 spot,” Ryman said. “She is really like a mixture of a second leadoff and a second three-hole hitter.”
Neely is a team player willing to bat wherever she fits best in the order and ready to play any position.
“The atmosphere we have is something special during practice and during our games,” Neely said. “There are more smiles, more joy and laughter.
“We are enjoying what we are doing. Yes, we enjoy it more when we are winning but we were happy before the wins. We are just enjoying our time here. I think that is really important. We are enjoying playing softball.”
The Lady Bisons face a major challenge to open conference play with North Florida. In the A-Sun preseason coaches’ poll the Lady Bisons were picked third, one point ahead of North Florida.
“They are going to be tough,” Ryman said. “They pitch well. They hit well.”
The Lady Bisons lead the series 11-7.
Both teams have strong offensive power with five North Florida batters hitting in the .300 range. Kelly Wilson leads with a .351 average.
Gracey Aguirre is batting .400 joining Neely at that level. Four Lady Bisons are batting .308 or higher. Brianne Welch is hitting .395 followed by Rena’ Cothron at .394. Kristen Sturdivant and Mimi Cartwright are each batting .308.
All three of the main North Florida pitchers – Cortney Radke, Kaylie Wallace and Kayla Goff – have earned run averages under 2.00.
“They have a three-headed monster with their pitching attack,” Ryman said. “We are going to have to come in ready to go.
“But that is the nature of A-Sun play. There are no freebies. We have to show up and try to steal some games on the road if we can.”
Left-hander Ashley Anderson, 4-0, leads the Lady Bisons with a 1.35 ERA. Opponents are batting .188 against her.
Right-hander Tanner Sanders, 6-1, has a 1.69 ERA. Heather Parker, also a right-hander, is 3-1 with a 3.20 ERA. She has struck out 18 batters in 19.2 innings.
“The attack mode I saw against Belmont (a 13-0 win Thursday) was good,” Ryman said. “That is something we will continue to stress with them.
“It is going to be a fight. The games might be close. But at the end of the day, if we keep on fighting, good things are going to happen.”