Following her team’s doubleheader against Central Baptist on March 20, first-year head coach Tiffany Ansley had a long talk with her Arkansas-Pine Bluff softball players on the Torii Hunter Softball Complex field.
A talk that lasted two to three hours’ worth, she estimated.
UAPB had just lost 4-2 and 13-0 on its own field to the NAIA ballclub from Conway, falling to 1-16 on the season. It was the sixth time this year the Lady Lions had lost by 10 or more runs.
“At the very end of our meeting, one of our girls, Jasmine Hardwrick, said it’s time to be quiet and show up and show out,” Ansley said, explaining that the team had often talked about their mistakes rather than fixing them. “It was time to stop the talking and show up with the bats and show what we can do, because we know we’re better than the teams we’ve lost to.”
Then came the SWAC Round-Up in Longview, Texas. And with that came success for the Lady Lions.
They won three of four games in the series of inter-division games, defeating Alcorn State, defending SWAC champion Mississippi Valley State and Alabama State.
“I think the biggest turning point was when we beat Mississippi Valley State,” Ansley said. “That was great. Once they saw they could stay up with the highest competition in the conference, there was no stopping us. I’m hoping they keep that mentality going, that fire lit.”
UAPB (10-21) has won 9 of 14 games since that long talk and has built an 8-1 record in the SWAC, tying Texas Southern (24-12, 8-1 SWAC) for first place in the Western Division. The two teams will clash in a three-game conference series that has been moved back a day to today, with a doubleheader starting at 1 p.m. and a single game at 11 a.m. Sunday.
According to senior Heather Leigh, this is the first time in her UAPB career that the Lady Lions have held at least a share of first place in the division. She calls it an exciting time to be in that position.
“This year, I feel like we’re going to win the championship, and I don’t even have a doubt about it,” Leigh said.
But Ansley is trying to keep her team’s approach to this game as normal as possible.
“This is just another game to get us to where we want to get to,” she said.
With a series win over the Lady Tigers, the Lady Lions — who have two more victories than they had last year — can firmly establish themselves as a serious championship contender.
UAPB has swept its first two Western Division series, taking two games from Southern in Fordyce (the third game was rained out and the field in Pine Bluff was unplayable) and sweeping Grambling State on the road last weekend. The Lady Lions have a seven-game conference winning streak.
Putting her team in position to take first place outright is a nice accomplishment for Ansley, who is Leigh’s fourth head coach in as many years. Ansley came to UAPB from Jackson State, where she spent two seasons as an assistant.
“Honestly, we have a coach that wants to be here for us and does everything for us to get to this point,” Leigh said. “We have a coach that we want to work for, and that helps a lot.”
The Lady Lions have turned around their season behind the strong pitching arm of junior Lacie Sutterfield (10-8, 3.79 ERA), who has struck out 67 in 107 innings pitched. The Coweta, Okla., product was named SWAC Pitcher of the Week for March 25-31, when she posted an earned-run average of 0.41 and went 3-0 in games against Langston (Okla.) and Southern, including a shutout.
“I was surprised when I actually got it because I was just going out and doing what I always do,” Sutterfield said. “It makes me want to keep doing more. I think it helps the team want to do more, too.”
Sutterfield has won 10 of her last 12 decisions.
Leigh, a pitcher/outfielder from Northridge, Calif., is the only Lady Lion batting better than .300 on the season (.362), but the top seven hitters on the team are hitting .200 or better. Freshman catcher/infielder Kelsey Ridgeway of Hot Springs has a team-high 21 RBIs and is tied with sophomore outfielder Hardwrick of Foreman for the lead in home runs with four.
Mesquite, Texas, sophomore Tiressa Jacobs, who’s tied for second with Hardwrick in team hitting (.293), went 3-for-4 in Sunday’s series-sweep clincher at Grambling State, as did Leigh.
UAPB is coming off getting no-hit by Carly Hummel in an 8-0 loss at Ole Miss on Tuesday. It was a late addition to the Lady Lions’ schedule, and Friday was the first day since then the Lady Lions had been able to practice outside due to rain in the area.
“I’m hoping that will relight everybody because from here on out, it’s all about SWAC, it’s all about getting that first or second seed for the conference tournament and going over there and showing what we’re capable of,” Ansley said. “It’s to show that UAPB is not a team to mess with.”