The last two years have been tumultuous for Southern Utah University’s softball program, but a new era is set to begin under new head coach Don Don Williams.
Over the last two seasons the Thunderbirds are 15-72 overall and 10-29 in conference play. For the first time since joining the Big Sky conference in 2012, the T-Birds missed the conference playoffs in 2018. The program hit rock bottom by winning just six games in 2019.
Williams was hired to turn the ship around, and she’s got the chops to take on a rebuild of this magnitude. North Idaho College, a junior college in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, hired her to build a softball program from scratch in 1997. She took the challenge and built NIC into a JUCO power over the next 22 years.
Her approach is centered on establishing a positive culture around the team by drilling home what Williams refers to as “The Two Controllables:” effort and attitude.
SUU hasn’t been a traditional softball power, but they won the conference tournament as recently as 2014, so it’s not like it’s impossible to win in Cedar City. Williams inherits a talented group that needs a bit of direction.
The T-Birds were pinned to finish seventh out of seven teams in the Big Sky’s Preseason Coach’s Poll. 2020 will likely be the first step in the process, but there’s a lot to look forward to this season. Here’s a look at the 2020 T-Birds.
SUU Athletic Director Debbie Corum’s greatest strength has been her ability to hire passionate coaches who deserved a chance at the Division-I level. Williams fits the model established in the hirings of Todd Simon, Tracy Sanders and Kai Edwards.
Williams is already beloved by her players, and this could be the beginning of something special for SUU softball. It’s easy to put things into a long term perspective, but the T-Birds have plenty to work with now.
Last season’s downfall was not the T-Birds’ ability to put the ball in play. SUU finished fifth in the conference with a .276 batting average, and third in runs during conference play.
Sophomore Dream Weaver returns to the lineup after a breakout freshman season. Weaver batted .372 and finished fourth in the conference in batting average. Her 2019 performance landed her on the Big Sky All-Conference Second Team, and should be expected to anchor the T-Bird offense for 2020.
Junior Makall Whetten also figures to be an important part of the offense after hitting .350 in 2019. Whetten had an important double in the team’s 2-1 win over Oregon State at this season’s opening tournament in Las Vegas.
Four other starters from last season’s team return for 2020, including Mikelle Magalogo (.280 last season), Samantha Guerra (.215), Hannah Pace (formerly Williams, .216) and Makenzie Ball (.233).
There’s also an exciting batch of fresh faces making an impact early on in the 2020 season.
Salt Lake Community College transfers Paige Reynolds (.333 in 12 plate appearances in 2020) and Dayna Hokanson (.308 in 13) lead the team in batting average five games into 2020.
The pitching staff was rebuilt with junior college transfers. College of Southern Idaho transfer Kamryn Grover has a 2.21 ERA through six innings pitched. Koryne Coddington joined the T-Birds from Western Arizona Community College, and picked up the win against Oregon State.
William’s ability to recruit at the junior college level will prove to be a huge asset. As Sanders and Simon can attest to, non-traditional methods of assembling talent are essential at small universities like SUU.
The T-Birds began their season at the UNLV Rebel Kickoff and beat a Pac 12 school. They lost their other four games from the weekend, but it’s a start.
Up in the Air
Last season’s struggles on the mound almost completely erased the solid offensive season the team had. The team finished with a 6.06 ERA in conference play, worst in the conference by nearly a run and a half.
Finding consistent pitching will be key. Grover, Coddington and senior Sydni Sorenson have handled the duties thus far, and they have a respectable 4.67 ERA after five games of punching above their weight in Vegas.
Sorenson and Nicole Wall are the only members of last year’s staff returning for 2020, but Wall only appeared in six games in her freshman season last year.
The slew of fresh faces doesn’t need to do much to improve on last season’s production, but if they can keep the team’s ERA under four, life will be so much easier on offense. The win against Oregon State came on the back of a stellar performance by Coddington, so there’s reason for optimism.
Replacing the production of Kendall Kapitzke (33 RBI, graduation) and Madison Carr (.353 average, transferred to Utah Valley) will be tough, but Reynolds and Hokanson seem equipped to step up in their place.
There is a lot up in the air for this program, but in year one of the Williams era, the team just needs to improve from its six wins in 2019. The bar is set low, and it should be, but Williams and co will hope to blow the expectations out of the water in 2020.
SUU continues their preseason schedule this weekend in San Diego for the Campbell/Cartier classic. The T-Birds will play their first home game on March 20 against the University of Northern Colorado.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: SUU Athletics