Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor
Vikings softball is preparing to start the 2023 season with a new head coach, but the momentum from last year’s program-first Women’s College World Series appearance still carries on due to familiar faces and aligned team goals.
In their 2022 season, the team won the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) and advanced the furthest ever in the post-season, finishing fourth place in Division III softball nationwide.
The team begins this season ranked fifth in the nation and with predictions that they will repeat as conference champions. New Head Coach Jessica Strong said she is approaching the season with cautious optimism and hopes that her girls will not let expectations influence how they play.
“We just need to embrace each game pitch by pitch,” Strong said. “It comes down to doing the small things well, and if we can focus on that foundation, good things typically happen to teams that have the ability.”
Strong came to Berry from Pennsylvania’s Seton Hill University last September, where she led that D-II program to its first Women’s College World Series appearance in 2022. Strong said that coaching on the D-III level brings some drawbacks, such as less time for fall practice, and she is adjusting to the unique demand on players’ time presented by the Lifeworks program.
However, the players and coach are acclimating, especially because of their shared mentality to enjoy competing.
“It’s still 60 feet to first base, just maybe [there are] some different ways we talk about the same thing and just getting to that same level of understanding what’s being communicated,” Strong said.
Blair Hall, a junior pitcher and first-baseman who transferred to Berry before last season, said that the team’s hard-working attitude carried over to 2023 in part because of having so many returning players.
“I think it’s going to be even better this season,” Hall said. “It feels like the same team, so it brings that same spirit.”
Six freshmen are on the team’s 20-woman roster this year, but the team only graduated one senior last year, Abbey Gamble (22C). Gamble officially joined the Athletic Department staff as assistant softball coach in December 2022, but she never really left the team, volunteering to help with weight training last fall before Strong arrived.
Gamble, who experienced a head coaching change herself as a player, said that she is proud of how her former teammates have rolled with the punches of staffing changes, treating her with the respect due her new position and going to her for coaching advice, in addition to welcoming Strong.
“It’s been cool to see how they’ve handled it with grace and perseverance,” Gamble said.
Throughout the transition, Gamble’s consistent presence played a large role in helping team members adjust well. Senior outfielder Aleeya Thornton, who has played for Berry since she was a freshman, said that Gamble contributes an understanding of each individual as both a player and a person that she can share with Strong to make their coaching more effective.
“[Gamble] carries the legacy of Berry softball really well, and she helps pass it down to all of us, and I think having her as a coach, especially with a new coach coming in, really helped us merge,” Thornton said. “She can relate to our experiences, and push us more because she knows how it was to be in our shoes.”
To improve the team technically, Strong said she is focused on building on players’ strong foundation of hitting and incorporating skills and drills that promote perseverance in the particulars of the game, such as communication and bunt defense.
“Softball is being extraordinary at the ordinary,” Strong said. “Little things along the way, really add up to those moments of intensity that could make or break you, so practice until it’s just, ‘I’ve already done it a million times, so we’re good to go.’”
Gamble reiterated the head coach’s desire for the team to not go into the season with their minds set on meeting expectations, but rather with the goal to improve themselves in the present, a little bit at a time.
“We’re no longer ‘Team 13,’ we’re ‘Team 14’ now,” Gamble said, referring to the current team playing in the Berry softball program’s 14th year of existence. “We might have some of the same, but this is a whole new perspective, and [it’s important that we’re] just challenging ourselves to be the best we can be every day.”
Having a majority of seasoned players means that the team is well-prepared to meet their goal for the 2023 season, to win the Division III national championship. Gamble hopes that players with playoffs experience will not become cocky, but confidently take the lead in post-season situations, as the freshmen learn resiliency and adjust.
“We can be ‘shoulders back,’ okay we’ve done this before, we know what it’s like, we know what the quick turnaround is, so we know how to carry ourselves with grace and confidence,” Gamble said.
Strong’s most anticipated matchup of the season is what has become a rivalry game against conference member Birmingham Southern College.
However, post-season opponents have also become repetitive on the 2023 schedule, with the Vikings facing reigning D-III champs Christopher-Newport University and Trine University, the team that knocked them out of the World Series, early in the season.
Senior team member Thornton said that she looks forward to seeing how this year’s team take these rematches. Thornton said that the team’s strength, which carried over from last year, is enjoying the hard work of improving their game.
“I feel like we’re skyrocketing up, reaching new heights each year,” Thornton said. “We don’t think about anything else when we’re together except playing and having fun, and I feel like that’s the main part of the game, really. If you’re having that fun, focused competitive atmosphere, [it] brings you back to that time when you decided, ‘I love this.’ It just keeps you here.”
Softball begins its season on Tues., Feb. 14, with a home opener against Covenant College.