Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor
The Berry Vikings softball team swept their series against conference opponent Millsaps College last weekend, finishing the regular season with a 17-0 conference record and clinching the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) regular season title.
The wins made them only the second team in SAA program history to finish the regular season undefeated in conference, the first being Berry’s 2017 team.
Head Softball Coach Jessica Strong, who is in her first year coaching the Vikings, said that she celebrates the 17 wins, but she considers her biggest accomplishment of the season so far to be the increased confidence of her ballplayers.
“It’s really cool in hindsight, but I don’t want to stop here,” Strong said. “Let’s keep pushing forward to the next best thing. I love it when we can just let it ride and let good things happen.”
Another new member of the team’s staff this year, Assistant Coach Abbey Gamble (22C), was herself a Vikings softball player last year, when Millsaps won two of the three games by a close margin. Both years, Berry was doing well and playing a nationally unranked opponent.
Gamble believes the key to success for the Vikings this year was going into the game with motivation to prove themselves rather than a cocky attitude.
“I know what it takes to put in the work to be a conference champion,” Gamble said. “To be undefeated in conference is something that requires focus 100% of the time, never letting up.
In addition to delivering on runs as expected, Strong said the Millsaps series demonstrated the depth and flexibility of the team’s pitching staff of the 2023 season. A different pitcher started each of the three games, and six played in total, including sophomore Hannah Gore and junior Blair Hall, both of whom have received multiple SAA Pitcher of the Week awards this season.
Having more pitchers with returning experience played an important role in better performance. Another major improvement noticed among the battery, or pitching and catching staff, in 2023 is due to the ownership developed this year.
Hall said that Gamble and Strong have allowed the catchers to call signs, or determine the upcoming pitch, which has forced the pitchers and catchers to work together consistently. The coaches also give the players freedom to be self-directed at practice.
“They do their job when nobody’s looking, when people are looking, and they have each other’s back,” Gamble said.
The battery is also supported by a defense that is growing increasingly stronger this year. Junior Anna Jackson, who plays catcher, said that in two series played earlier in April, against conference rival Birmingham-Southern College (BSC) and Piedmont University, the Vikings played their best defense all season.
“It just seems like every time the ball is up in the air, it gets caught by our defense, and that’s really huge for the pitcher to see that,” Jackson said.
Strong’s focus at the beginning of the season was to improve the defense through repeated practice of details and through growing internal communication between players and coaches. Strong said increased gametime instincts and a forward-thinking attitude has prevented them for the most part from allowing innings to snowball, or get out of control.
“What’s so important in our sport is, if you make a bad play, can you make the next best play?” Strong said. “We do that well pretty consistently, whether it’s the same progression or the next batter.”
After beating BSC and Piedmont University, the Vikings moved up from number five to the four spot nationwide among National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III schools, according to the weekly National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll.
This creates much anticipation of another record-setting post-season, after the Vikings made their program-first appearance in the Women’s College World Series last year.
While the Vikings last year faced many teams for the first time in the post-season, this year they have already played against many highly ranked D-III opponents, including a hard-fought loss against then-ranked no. 2 Trine University, who knocked them out of the NCAA tournament last year.
Jackson believes that these high-profile matchups prepared the team better for the post-season, even though they resulted in the team’s four losses in their 27-4 record.
“Seeing that we were able to play right there with the top teams in the nation gave us even more confidence of how good we are, and we’re just even more prepared to face them again and prove ourselves,” Jackson said.
Despite post-season hopes, Strong said she and her team must remain focused on what is immediate. Since the Vikings clinched the SAA regular season championship, they will host Millsaps and Sewanee: The University of the South for the first round of the conference championship the weekend of Friday, April 28.
“It’s kind of an all-gas, no-brakes mentality,” Strong said. “Just put it all out on the field, don’t have any regrets, and knowing who our team is I think there’s a very positive potential for some outcomes.”