Softball finding traction halfway through season

North Alabama senior pitcher Hillary Carpenter winds up against Lee March 11 in Florence. The Lions are back in the hunt in the Gulf South Conference standings after sweeping West Alabama March 18-19 to improve to 9-6 in the GSC.

by Sports Editor Andrew Fulmer

North Alabama softball set a standard when it claimed its first national championship in 2016.

But, as so many teams have following championship seasons, the Lions have had their fair share of bumps in the road back to tournament season in 2017.

After a 6-6 start in conference play, the Lions may have gotten back on track with a 3-0 series sweep over visiting rivals West Alabama March 18-19 and improved to 9-6 in Gulf South Conference play. The Lions now sit four games outside of first place in the conference at the midway point of the season.

Though Lions head coach Ashley Cozart said the team tries not to bring up last season, she said this does not mean other teams do the same.

“The biggest challenge this season has been the target on our backs,” Cozart said. “I think we all knew there would be one, but until we started playing we found out that everyone is going to bring their best game against us, and we have to have a mindset to counter that and come out and play hard.”

The Lions began the season as the top-ranked softball team in the Division II Coaches Poll but are now unranked after their unexpected 19-10 record. But, wins over currently ranked teams such as Missouri-St. Louis, Indianapolis and Shorter earlier in the season could become valuable résumé boosters come regional rankings season.

UNA has 18 regular season games remaining on its schedule, all of which are GSC contests. The bulk of those games will be on the road as the Lions have just two three-game series at home — Alabama-Huntsville April 1-2 and Christian Brothers April 22-23.

Cozart said she looks for things to start going the team’s way and for the roller coaster season to become more consistent.

A key for UNA’s series win versus UWA and as a whole going forward is the emergence of the Lions’ bats, Cozart said.

With veterans stepping up to the plate like senior Anna Gayle Norris and junior Bailey Nelson, combined with younger players like sophomore Shelby Woodard and freshman Hannah Shollenberger, the Lions are perennial threats at the bases each game.

Nelson leads the team in hits with 37, including seven doubles. Norris, Shollenberger and Woodard are each tied for second with 29 hits.

“It feels good to have the girls behind my back when I’m at the plate,” Woodard said. “Going in the box and seeing the ball is all you have to do. It’s a real simple game, and we’re getting where we need to be.”

For their next series, the Lions will travel to Delta State March 25-26 before returning to Florence to take on rival UAH.