It’s almost like being told “the sky is blue” when fans of Longwood Softball hear the fact that the Lancers have once again (for the fifth season in a row) been placed first in the Big South Conference Preseason Poll. With the level of excellence the program has shown throughout its history, instances like these are now commonplace. But for head coach Kathy Riley, complacency is something that will not be accepted and the accolade is something that only serves as a motivating factor, even coming off of another Big South championship winning season only a year ago.
She said she spoke to the team last Wednesday, the day the rankings were released and before she even knew the teams’ placement, to lay the groundwork on how the team should prepare mentally to be successful.
“I just told them, you know, ‘if we want to become good we have to work hard each day and let’s make that our goal and that our focus, and if we did do that, at the end of the season we would have an opportunity to be a quality team’,” said Riley. “And in that way we are not creating an expectation level that is keeping more pressure on us because we’re just trying to do our best each day that we come in and, you know, some days we’re going to do great at it (and) some days we’re going to do not so good.
“When we don’t do well, we’re just going to have to get right back on the horse and do a really good job the next day,” she added.
Junior pitcher Sydney Backstrom also was recognized as Big South Preseason Pitcher of the Year after a 2018-19 campaign that saw her lead the team in innings pitched, complete games and wins. Now, as former pitcher Sydney Gay has graduated, Backstrom now grasps the starting role in the circle for the Lancers.
Riley has noticed the growth the right-hander has shown over time, and knows Backstrom holds high expectations for herself.
“I feel like she’s taken ownership in wanting to be a good player. She’s been doing that for years, you know, wanting to be as good as she possibly can be,” said Riley. “So, you know, for me to add more pressure than she already has established in a sense that she wants to be this best possible pitcher that she can be, I feel like, again, it’s counter-productive. So I didn’t even bring it (the award) up with her at all.”
“She’s already doing the things we want her to do, that’s come out every day, trust yourself to be the best you possibly can be, and I think she’s already working on that at a pretty high level,” Riley added.
The head coach said the team has trained a lot on the defensive end inside a gym setting in the preseason due to weather, which causes the players to be able to adjust to different hops of the ball and also provides valuable repetitions to improve on angles and arm strength. The Lancers placed fifth in the Big South Conference a season ago in fielding percentage at 95.6 percent.
When mother nature allows for it, Riley said the team shifts their focus to the outdoors on the softball diamond where they will then focus on offense at a higher rate.
She said, “I would say that’s another reason why we usually play better as we go through the season, it’s because we get more time outside, then we hit a lot more, and switch the focus from defense to offense.”
Catcher/Third baseman Alexis Wayland returns as the Lancers’ leading bat from a season ago as she led the team in home runs with nine and was third in batting average at .270. When behind the plate, she will have large shoes to fill as Kaylynn “Bug” Batten has now graduated from the program.
With six freshmen on the roster coming into the season (Leigha Hill, Tanner Robertson, Kelly Park, Lauren Taylor, Breeanna Huggins and Nia Green) Riley said it was the off-field characteristics of each that received attention in the recruiting process.
“We look for that more in their way that they interact with their parents and their teammates,” said Riley. “I think its more your value system. So what we look for a lot is, are you a hard worker, and are you respectful of things and the people that you come into contact with and are you appreciative? And if you can get people that are, then naturally they’ll figure out how to enjoy each other’s company.”
The three-time Big South Coach of the Year feels this year’s team does not have a big talent gap, and she feels all of the players on the squad are “pretty good”. She said in years past that she would normally have nine set players who would get a majority of the reps, but she will look to change that this season.
“I feel like it’s going to be shared throughout the season with some of these kids playing well at certain points and other players playing well at different times,” said Riley. “So it’s really kind of comforting in a way that we will be able to rely on more players. In fact, I feel like I will play more players off the bench than I have in the past.”
The Lancers will begin their quest for another Big South Championship on February 7 as they take part in the Elon Softball Classic, taking on the hosts from Elon with a 2:30 p.m. start. Home fans will get their first opportunity to see the team in-person on March 11 as the Rams from The University of Rhode Island will come to Farmville for a doubleheader beginning at 2:00 p.m.