NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Friendships made in small towns often leave a bond not even death can break.
Fans of Lipscomb softball are witnesses to such an emotional tie every time Mandy Jordan pitches and most don’t even realize it.
When Jordan goes to the circle each inning she bends down and writes something in the dirt, the letters RHS. She then picks up a handful of dust, pounds it and tosses it four times, spelling out L-O-V-E.
Such repetition might be dismissed by many as mere superstition.
But these actions have a deeper emotional meaning, first started at Wilcox Academy in Camden, Alabama. And it has meant even more to Jordan to be able to perform her ritual on Alabama ground this weekend during the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional.
Jordan first started the routine her junior year of high school. The valedictorian of a class of 30, everyone attending the small school knew everyone else. Richard Hudson Steele was a special person, gone too soon, but still fiercely remembered.
Steele, a close friend of Mandy’s younger sister, Nancy, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in the seventh grade and died during his eighth-grade year. Jordan was a junior.
“That is when I stopped playing softball just because it was fun,” Jordan said. “I was no longer playing just for me. I started playing for the people around me.
“Hudson loved all sports. He came to all our softball games that he could my sophomore year and sat in the top left corner of the bleachers. He sat there because he could see our field and the baseball field and watch both games.”
After Jordan would pitch a game, Steele was the first one to greet her to tell her how great she had pitched, even if it wasn’t her best effort.
“I would walk 12 batters and Hudson would still tell me I pitched an awesome game.” Jordan said. “If there was a perfect Christian out there it would be that 13-year-old boy.”
Making her remembrance of Steele even more special is the fact many of her family and friends, some from Camden, are in the stands this weekend. Those from her hometown still remember the loss of Steele.
“The announcement of Hudson’s death is still engraved in the minds of everyone at the school,” Jordan said. “I can remember hearing the wail from Nancy’s class. It was an awful cry.
“I still play every inning for Hudson Steele. I also play for my grandparents. I play for my parents and my sisters. They all love the game as much as I do. I play for my younger brother, Turner, who thinks I’m the greatest.”
The anonymous pitcher
Jordan had been an early commitment to Auburn, where her father, David, had been a football star good enough to play in the NFL. Most of her family has ties to the school as well.
But a coaching change influenced Jordan to change her verbal commitment and seek other opportunities. To gain some exposure the summer before her junior year of high school she played for two travel teams – the Mobile Thrillers and the Birmingham Thunderbolts.
She played for the Thunderbolts on the weekends when the Thriller team wasn’t playing. One of those weekend tournaments was in Colorado. Since she was not a regular member of the Thunderbolts her name was not on the roster. She wasn’t listed on the numerous recruitment sheets that are posted at tournaments either.
“I was just a pick-up player for the Bolts,” Jordan said. “I wasn’t on their roster even though I played for them in three of their four tournaments that summer.”
Ryman watched Jordan in a couple of games. She left Colorado still not knowing Jordan’s name.
“I just had some random notes about her and her uniform number,” Ryman said. “It is such a God thing she came to Lipscomb like a lot of the players who have come here.”
The place to be
Jordan was no stranger to Lipscomb. She had attended basketball camps directed by Frank Bennett, a longtime coach of the Lady Bisons, when she was 10 and 12.
“I was so young I thought I was going to be a basketball player,” Jordan said. “But when I was in the ninth grade my Dad told me I wasn’t fast enough. I was a pretty good shot, but I wasn’t tall enough.”
Basketball’s loss was softball’s gain.
Lipscomb was on the first list of schools Jordan prepared before the verbal commitment to Auburn. Lipscomb was the only school from that list to be included on her final revised list as she sought a new place to play.
It came down to Lipscomb and Jacksonville, both ASUN schools. She visited both schools twice and admits she loved both.
“I had a hard time deciding,” Jordan said. “I felt like my better fit with both the team and the environment was Lipscomb. I couldn’t just go to a school because I loved the coach and I loved the campus. I had to be able to fit in too.
“My teammates also motivate me. I have never played the game just because I love softball. It is about the environment around it. It is like a family. Everybody has a competitive drive.”
Jordan was a little surprised to get a quick offer from Lipscomb. Ryman and assistant head coach Megan Rhodes Smith had watched Jordan pitch for the Thrillers in a tournament in Trussville, Alabama. Jordan admits it was not a strong effort.
“It was hot… 95 degrees,” Jordan said. “I was out of water. I was out of Gatorade. I was dying. I was not pitching great.”
Her travel coach didn’t expect her to be offered a scholarship by Lipscomb because of the performance. But Ryman was influenced by what she had seen from Jordan in the Colorado tournament.
“Her movement was very good,” Ryman said. “Her speed was good to go with her movement which is always a good combo. She was getting swings and misses.
“One of the biggest things was her demeanor. She had a presence. We still see that today. There is a confidence about her. She is extremely competitive. I could see that oozing out of her the first time I saw her. She was going to come at batters with her best stuff.”
A humbling experience
Great things were expected from Jordan her freshman year. But her father wasted little time letting her know the first year might not be a smooth road.
“He told me as we were moving into Fanning, `Mandy, this is going to be different’. I said this is the same game. It might be more fast paced but it is still softball.
“He said, `No, this is a gut check’. He told me I was going to fail a lot my freshman year. I didn’t quite understand how different it was going to be.”
Mimi Cartwright quickly let Jordan know how humbling it would be. Cartwright drove a pitch that bounced off Jordan’s right thigh leaving a bruise from her kneecap to her hip for months.
“I called my parents and told them about it,” Jordan said. “My Dad came up to see me a few days later. He looked at the bruise and said, `I told you it would be humbling’. It got more and more humbling as the year went on.”
She had the luxury of pitching behind the strong senior duo of Tanner Sanders and Kelly Young. She learned from them as well as from Ryman and Smith.
“Our coaching staff knew Mandy was going to be a very high-quality pitcher for us,” Ryman said. “She was the future of the program. But like many freshmen there was a learning curve.
“It is a question of this is what I have always done and why isn’t in working for me? You have to change the way your prepare. That is tough.”
Riding the waves
Jordan didn’t get to pitch as many innings as she would have liked as a freshman. She sometimes learned some hard lessons when she did enter the circle.
She used her freshman year experiences to drive her to reach high goals as a sophomore. She put in an outstanding season with a 23-11 worksheet and a 1.46 earned run average.
“My sophomore year I thought I had something to prove,” Jordan said. “I came in with a chip on my shoulder because I felt like I needed to gain the trust of my teammates. At that point I didn’t think I had done well enough for them to have confidence in me.”
Jordan and assistant head coach Megan Rhodes Smith worked on hitting spots and pitching smart.
Her junior year she injured her elbow a few weeks into the season. She dealt with the results of the injury the rest of the season, but still finished 15-8 with a 1.54 ERA.
“I started out my junior year feeling really good,” Jordan said. “The second weekend of the season my hand started feeling weird.”
After several tests, it was determined her UCL was loose in her elbow. After the fourth week of the season she did not throw a pitch in practice. Towards the end of the season the lack of practice started affecting her performances.
“It was difficult to say the least,” Jordan said. “It was frustrating.”
Ryman also thinks Jordan felt the pressure of trying to be even better than she had been her sophomore year.
“She had extra weight on her shoulders,” Ryman said. “She had been highly ranked in a lot of different areas as a sophomore.
“Could she replicate her sophomore year? That is not easy to do. She put too much pressure on herself.”
It was decided this past fall surgery was needed to repair the damage done. Jordan did not pitch to a live batter in practice or in a game in the fall. She had not thrown in the summer in training either.
“I was sick of it hurting,” Jordan said. “My ulnar nerve was moving a little bit. I was having trouble eating and opening doors.
“I was given a week to decide if I was going to pitch with the pain or have it fixed. I decided surgery was best for me.”
Jordan is 18-8 this season and was the Most Valuable Player in the ASUN Tournament as well as an All-Region selection.
“By mid-March I wanted to be able to hit spots, but it took longer than I had planned,” Jordan said. “I wasn’t really where I wanted to be until the Kennesaw State series, late in the ASUN part of the season.”
Ryman, Smith and assistant coach J.J. Dillingham handled Jordan’s recovery cautiously. Jordan was limited to no more than two games in preconference tournaments. The possibility of redshirting her was also considered.
“We tried to manage her innings the first couple of weekends,” Ryman said. “Then she started feeling good. Her workouts were better. We wanted her in the best place possible when conference play started.
“She is in a good place. She is healthy. She feels good. At this point it is about guts and will as much as it is the pitching.”
Leaving a legacy
Ryman points out Jordan needs to be faced with a challenge in order to do her very best. Certainly, she has dealt with many in her career.
“When there is a challenge in place it fuels her a little bit more,” Ryman said. “She doesn’t shy away from that. I love that about her.
“She is humble. She handles herself well. Off the field she is very respectful of others. She hates to lose but she can appreciate another pitcher’s great effort. People enjoy the way she plays and how much she gives to our team.”
Jordan draws her toughness from her teammates.
“It may be hot,” Jordan said. “I may be struggling, but so are the people around me. You can’t give up, because your teammates are not going to give up on you.
“I might be throwing every pitch, but Sarah Higgins is catching every one of them. I have played this game since I was four years old. I have played every position and I know every position is hard.”
Jordan admits the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament in her home state has been exciting. She is happy this team will be remembered as one of the best in the history of the program. She knows what she wants her personal legacy to be as well.
“I like being known as the bulldog,” Jordan said. “I fight for my people.”
The players were given out cards at the start of the season with alter egos. She remembers what was said by the coaches on her card.
“My card said, `she gives you everything she has, and she fights for her people’.” Jordan said. “My team is my people. I love that people notice I care for them.
“Everyone wants to be remembered as a good player, but I want to be remembered as a good person. I want to be remembered as someone who led the right way and gave everything she had to the game.”