ORMOND BEACH, FLA. - In case you missed it, the Howard University softball team starts tournament play as one of the hottest teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The Lady Bison (20-26 overall, 9-4 in the MEAC) finished the regular season with a rush, winning their last eight games to capture the Northern Division title and the Number 1 seed in the division.
Howard opens play on Thursday against North Carolina A&T State University (22-19 overall, 4-7 in the MEAC South), the Number 4 seed in the Southern Division at 10 am. The tournament will be played at the Ormond Beach Sports Complex.
The Lady Bison's recent success came after the team had dropped five in a row and seven of its last eight contests. Then came what would prove to be perhaps the defining moment of the season.
Trailing Morgan State University, 5-3 in the sixth inning, Howard rallied to tie the game at 5-5 on a single by designated hitter extraordinaire, Courtney Young. Then in the bottom of the seventh inning, Young delivered the game winner that set off a big celebration at Howard's home field and fueled the eight-game streak.
In the process, Howard, two years removed as tournament champion and NCAA participant went from being in danger of not making the tournament, to Number 1 seed.
"The biggest thing in this turnaround has been positive reinforcement," said Dexter Harris, the interim head coach who took over for former head coach Tonja Braxton after she was relieved of her duties on April 25. "That game and the comeback against Morgan went a long way to help their confidence."
During the streak, several players have stepped up. Young, a junior designated hitter and reigning MEAC Player of the Year, has delivered by batting .520 during the streak and driving in 13 runs. Equally impressive has been the play of junior Nicole Saez, who is batting a whopping .577 during that period and has driven in 22 runs.
Sophomore Emily Johnson has also found her stroke, batting .385 and riving in 16 runs while freshmen Rebecca Kirshner (.333) and Lorae Robinson (.458), and junior Aisha Ledet (.364) have also been key contributors.
Kirshner, who was named the MEAC Rookie of the Year, has shown flashes that she could become one of the top players at her position in the conference with her sterling defensive plays.
"One of the main things that we emphasized was understanding roles on the team," added Harris, who also serves as Associate Athletics Director, but has an extensive background in baseball. "By defining the various roles, it has given the players opportunities to come through when called upon. They are understanding that they have to do what they do best and everything else will take care of itself."
As a team, the Lady Bison lead the MEAC in both batting (.287 as a team) and in home runs (35). Saez (10 HRs) and Young (nine HRs) have combined for 19 homers and 80 runs batted in between them. Young leads the MEAC in hits with 58 while Saez leads all players in the conference with 43 runs batted in.
There were some serious transitions and challenges in the early going that impacted upon the team's woes when it lost 26 of 38 games. First baseman Jennifer Bien-Aime and catcher Kristina Cordova, an All-MEAC selection, were lost due to injury. Bien-Aime missed most of the second half of the season while Cordova was not able to play at all and may receive a medical redshirt.
To make matters worse, the Lady Bison had to overcome the loss of the school's all-time leading pitcher Dale McNeal. But a young staff finally began to get some hitting support and that helped boost their confidence. Sophomores Jessica Hurston, Carly Martin, Emily Johnson and junior Christina McCoy combined to win or record saves during the streak.
In North Carolina A&T, the Lady Bison face a dangerous team. Although the Lady Aggies lost their final two games of the season to Bethune-Cookman, they managed to capture three of their last five.
North Carolina A&T ranks second behind Howard in the conference in batting (.284) and leads in overall pitching. The Lady Aggies are led by their gig three, Ryanne Hill, who is batting .387, Yahamma White at .351 and Jessie Larsen at .317. Jenifer Lupe is one of the premier hurlers in the MEAC.
"The most important thing for us is to stay aggressive," said Harris. "They understand how big and important that this tournament is for the program. They have stated all along that they want to win a championship."