Lions reach highest ranking in school history

Sophomore catcher Carey Grace Peebles rounds second base against the University of West Alabama Feb. 28. UNA (31-8, 16-7) reached No. 9 in the nation April 8. The Lions are also third in the Gulf South Conference standings with six game left in the regular season.

This year’s softball team made history. For the first time, the Lions climbed to No. 9 in the country. Previously, the highest ranking UNA achieved was No. 10.

The Lions (31-8, 16-7) steadily creeped up the rankings since landing at the No. 22 spot earlier in the season. Since joining the top 25, UNA moved up every week except for a two-week stay at No. 15.

“I have never been a big fan of rankings, but being able to see that our hard work is paying off is great,” said head coach Ashley Cozart. “It is a direct reflection of the hard work, dedication, and the character of our team. I am very proud of my girls.”

The softball team’s record-breaking season has caught the attention of a lot of people, but the players do not want the historical ranking to become a distraction.

“Right now it’s kind of surreal,” said sophomore pitcher Hillary Carpenter. “I don’t think I will think about it a lot right now because that’s not what matters. My mind is on winning these next few ball games. I can think about making history after my career.”

A top 10 ranking does not mean the Lions can start to become complacent, said senior outfielder Libby Olinger.

“While we were excited to know that we received the highest ranking in school history, we know that we still have a lot of work to do,” she said. “We can’t be satisfied and settle for anything less than our best. Our goals at the beginning of the season included being No. 1 in our conference and we still have a way to go over the next month to win the conference tournament and get a regional bid.”

To get to this point, the Lions have relied on great pitching and good defense from Carpenter and her counter-ace BreeAnna Blevins. Carpenter’s 0.75 ERA is tied for best in the country, and the team has the seventh best ERA in the nation.

“(The pitching staff’s) success has been very vital to the team,” Cozart said. “The way they perform in the circle gives our hitters and defense the confidence we need to do what we have to do.”

Carpenter said success can be both a blessing and a curse.

“No matter how high we are in the rankings, I know that I still have to go out on the mound and work even harder because these teams are going to give us their best games against us knowing we are ranked team,” she said.

Despite suffering two losses this past weekend to Gulf South Conference rival Lee University, the Lions are still confident in their game and feel they can beat anyone at any time.

“I have a great feeling about the conference tournament,” Olinger said. “I feel like we know how important this is and we are going to give it everything it takes to win and reach our goals when it counts. When we are playing our best ball, there is no doubt we can beat anyone in our conference or in the nation.”

Not only are the Lions confident they can win the GSC, they can also win high pressure games on the highest stage. National championship aspirations are here to stay.

“This team is special and I’m proud of the season we’ve had overall so far but we are not finished,” Olinger said. “We’ve worked too hard all our lives and made too many sacrifices to settle for anything less than winning it all and I truly believe we can do it.”

            The Lions need everything to come together these last few weeks to maintain their high ranking and continue their chase towards a conference and national championship, Cozart said.

            “From here on out everything is important,” she said. “Pitching, hitting, defense, our mentality – We have to bring all of these each game. If one is off that day the other needs to step up. That is the key to finishing our season strong.”

After dropping two out of three against Lee University the Lions fell to No.13 in the latest rankings released April 15.