Photo by Jeff Nycz
U of M softball players enjoy the sunny weather at practice in Southaven, Miss., earlier this year. The outlook is bright for the University's inaugural softball team, which is trying to succeed in its debut season and establish a winning legacy for the future.
Last spring, when Windy Thees was recruiting players for the University of Memphis' inaugural softball team, she explained the perks of joining a first-year program.
There was the excitement of establishing traditions.
The impending construction of an on-campus stadium.
And, of course, the shiny new gear players would get to unwrap when practice finally commenced.
"Trust me, I used that as a recruiting tool," Thees says. "I told them everything was going to be smelling of plastic and they're going to rip the tags off of everything."
That fringe benefit was one reason Bridgette McNulty signed with Memphis. After all, McNulty played junior college softball in Arizona, where she was forced to suffer through shabby and scarce equipment.
"We had to share bats, our helmets were ugly, we got one pair of cleats," says McNulty, a junior third baseman. "At this school we have anything and everything. It's all pretty, too. It's gorgeous. It's a step up."
Fifteen pioneering student-athletes stepped up to comprise the first softball team in U of M history, but those who helped make NCAA Division I softball a reality here aren't content with merely donning that sparkling softball gear while letting opponents roll over them.
No, these Tigers have much loftier goals.
"I expect this team to perform well; I expect them to do well in conference; I expect to challenge for a regional bid this first year," Thees says. "Why would you play if you knew you weren't going to do those things?"
Behind curtain no. 2 ...
Softball officially began last October with the fall exhibition season, making it the University's first new sport since 1995 when women's soccer was added. According to associate athletic director Lynn Parkes, the U of M spent several years mulling the prospect of another sport before finally moving forward with softball.
"We wanted to give them an opportunity to be successful," Parkes says.
Though the University wasn't in jeopardy of a Title IX violation, it made sense to add a women's sport to maintain the gender equity mandated for all federally funded educational institutions. Besides, softball was a natural fit at the U of M considering the success it achieved as a club sport the previous few years and the popularity of the sport regionally.
"We did a good bit of research and we knew we had a lot of interest in the high schools in the area and in the surrounding states," Parkes says.
The athletic department secured funding for the program, which during the first year was centered on equipment, staffing and recruiting, Parkes says. It also created scholarships: eight this season, 10 next year and the maximum 12 beginning in 2007-08.
With genuine interest from prospective players and departmental money set aside, the University then notified the eight-team Conference USA of its decision to add softball and requested to be included in the 2005-06 schedule.
But the program truly got going in January 2005 with the hiring of Thees, who left the helm at Georgia College & State University to become the U of M's first head coach.
"The reason I took the job is because the University of Memphis is such a great school," says Thees. "And it sold me on the fact that this school can sell itself, so I knew I could sell the kids on the school. Then I had to sell myself as a coach."
Thees had to market herself not only to recruits, but to potential assistant coaches as well. Thees hired Louisiana Tech standout Marla Pinkston in March 2005, and former Florida assistant Dave Majeski in August 2005.
Along with all the administrative duties, such as filling uniform and equipment orders, Thees traveled the country in hopes of filling a roster. In homes nationwide Thees talked about the potential risk — and corresponding reward — of committing to a first-year program. She compared it to the game show "Let's Make a Deal," whereby recruits could opt for an established softball program or an unknown one behind the curtain.
"Did they want to go somewhere where they knew what they were going to get — maybe it wasn't what they always dreamed of — or did they want to make something behind the curtain their own, and it could be great," Thees says. "They really love that idea of building something, all these girls did, and that was fun."
From near and far
Geographically and culturally, San Diego is a long way from Memphis. But that didn't stop Kimberly Hayden from leaving her California home last summer for the U of M. She simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to be a member of the University's inaugural team, to see what was behind that curtain.
"I really wanted to be part of the history, to be the first one here, to establish the building blocks for the team for years to come," says Hayden, a freshman catcher.
Players came for myriad reasons, and they came from myriad places. Of the team's 15 players, four are from Tennessee, and the other 11 hail from seven different states. And while developing team chemistry might have seemed impossible for a first-year program, players believe the opposite has been true.
"As far as coming together as a team, I was really, really surprised that we came together so quickly and that we get along so well," McNulty says.
Credit Thees with choosing players who she believed would mesh on and off the field.
"I think since Coach recruited us all individually, she kind of had an idea of what our personalities were going to be like, who would clash and who wouldn't, and I think she did really well with finding people who don't clash," Hayden says. "It's really nice to have that chemistry on the team. It helps you win more games."
That chemistry off the field has indeed translated to success on it. With a 24-21 record midway through their debut, the Lady Tigers have turned heads by beating seasoned programs, even some of Memphis' natural rivals like nearby Ole Miss. The Lady Tigers crushed the Rebels 11-0 in February, an impressive showing in the team's third official game.
"We wanted to get it done and show them who's boss," Hayden says.
Field of dreams
The U of M won't play a single game in Memphis this season. Instead, they are playing home games 20 minutes away at Greenbrook Park in Southaven, Miss., until a $1.3 million stadium is completed on the South Campus. It's scheduled to open for the 2007 spring season, Parkes says.
Thees was involved in the planning, and her insights helped keep the facility from resembling a baseball field.
"I think the people designing it had never designed a softball field before," she says. "They had forgotten the bullpens and they hadn't put in the batting cages and we don't take on-the-field [batting practice]; in softball you take them in cages."
As for the players, they are especially eager to get into their new digs. Kara Ross, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., admits that it can be tough leaving campus after class each day and driving to Southaven, but they delight at the thought of their stadium being completed next year.
"The feeling is heartwarming," Ross says. "We'll be at our home, and it will definitely be like we're permanent, like we're here."
Actually, these 15 women are already here, despite their temporary home across the state line. Because as the players continue to reveal the prize once hidden behind the curtain, and as they build a legacy of winning softball, they're firmly securing their place in U of M athletic history.
"I always try to tell them that their picture will never come off the wall," Thees says. "And they have the chance to set the bar very, very high for teams following them."