The Southern Miss softball team will begin the 2015 season on Friday, Feb. 5, traveling to Gulf Shores, Alabama, to take on Jackson State and the University of Houston in the Sand Dollar Classic.
In 2014, the Golden Eagles finished the season (22-31,10-14) in Conference USA under then co-head coaches Kirsten Voak and Jon Malgradi.
This season, the team features a new head coach in Wendy Hogue and an assistant coach in Pete Vamvakas, who are both eager to establish a successful program at Southern Miss.
“When I think about Hattiesburg and Southern Miss softball, I think back to 1999,” said Wendy Hogue when she was named head coach of the softball team. “The very first Southern Miss softball game I ever went to – Courtney Blades, Kenya Peters, Chrystal Stevens. There was an excitement that was around not just softball, but Southern Miss softball. I am excited to finally be a part of that.”
Hogue came over from William Carey where she built the Lady Crusaders into a NAIA powerhouse. She led the team to six NAIA National Tournament appearances and coached 13 All-Americans.
Her most successful year was 2014 when the Lady Crusaders finished 52-12, ranking second in the final NAIA Coaches’ Top 25 Poll and runner-up in the NAIA Softball World Series.
Like Hogue, Vamvakas came from Baylor University, a team that reached the 2014 Women’s College World Series with a record of 49-16. He spent six years with the Lady Bears.
The Lady Eagles played six exhibition games in the fall in preparation for the spring, allowing players to play at different positions to see where they fit best on the team. The Golden Eagles went 5-1 in the six games.
“I think it was a measuring stick. Not us against other teams, but us against ourselves and where we need to be,” Hogue said. “Now, we have to go from getting better every week to getting better every day.”
On Jan. 8, the Golden Eagles kicked off the season with its first practice which consisted of a conditioning test and practice sessions in nearly freezing temperatures, building the team’s confidence for the upcoming season.
Shelbee Rodgers, a fifth-year senior pitcher, said fans can expect a lot from the team this year, despite what critics may think.
“As a team, we have a lot of energy, passion and excitement,” Rodgers said. “We are going to go all out in every pitch, get the university and the community behind us and more importantly, the foundation of a new era for this program will be laid.”
When Conference USA released its preseason polls, Southern Miss was picked to finish 10th in the conference. C-USA officials picked Tulsa and UAB in a tie for first, Florida Atlantic in second and Marshall in third.
Despite the odds against them in early season predictions, the Lady Eagles are not worried and are focusing on the growth and chemistry of the team.
“We are working hard each and every day on the mental aspect of the game,” Rodgers said. “We want to be mentally tougher than all of our opponents. We have the talent, now (too).”
USM features a total of 22 players with Shelby Rodgers being the only senior, followed by six juniors, 10 sophomores and five freshman.
Mallory Hayden, a freshman infielder from New Braunfels, Texas, said she has no doubts in team being able to boast a winning record and win a conference championship.
“The sky is truly the limit with this team and I expect for us to shock a lot of people and do big things,” Hayden said.
Hayden also said to have success, the team must capitalize on the small aspects of the game.
“Coach Hogue stresses doing the little things that allow you to be a top team in the conference,” Hayden said. “Whether it be having a high field percentage or productive batting average, it is important to get better every single day, stay within ourselves and remain confident in all areas of the game.”
The Lady Eagles’ schedule features two non-conference tournaments in the Sand Dollar and Lion Classics, followed by matchups against Mississippi Valley State and Ole Miss. Then, they will travel to Gulfport to participate in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Softball Classic before getting into conference action.
Leadership and playing for each other will be key in how well the Lady Eagles can perform as the season unfolds.
“When we come together, I have no doubt we will do great things,” said junior outfielder Katie Cleary. “I am excited to see our offense come together this year because every single player on our roster has the ability to do damage with the bat.”
The Lady Eagles will start the three-day tournament on Friday against Jackson State at noon, followed by a 3 p.m. matchup against Houston.
On Saturday, Southern Miss will play McNeese State and Lamar and close out the tournament on Sunday with a noon matchup against Florida Gulf Coast.