2024 Travel Team Preview: Epic 18u National (Smith)

By Jeff Strange

2023 was a very rewarding season for Oklahoma City based Epic 18u National (Smith). Head coach Scotty Smith and his staff have thrived off an extremely high-energy approach with their program, with even higher goals set in front of themselves to work hard to achieve.

With an emphasis on coaching fundamentals and teaching the game, while also constantly learning for themselves, Coach Smith and his staff continue to emphasize evolving in the game with continued intentions to provide as much knowledge and information as possible to their athletes.

The fruits of their labor have set in nicely, as highlights for the 2023 season included:

  • Bringing home championships at both the Top Club Spring and Fall invites
  • A 2nd place at Hustle City Invite
  • A 5-0 showing at the 2023 Top Gun Summer Invite before being shut down due to rain
  • An 8th place finish at 2023 Alliance Championship
  • Winning 3 of the 4 Fall events that were played

Now looking ahead to 2024, we caught up with Coach Smith on his thoughts for the upcoming season:

Can you give some background information on your coaching staff and coaching styles?

“Myself – Head Coach Scotty Smith has been coaching competitive softball for 17+ years. Starting with beginning levels and working up through each level. It all started with my daughters Jaiden and Mikayla.

We have been fortunate that to have some of the best assistant coaches that a coach could ask for over the past few years – Tony Smith, Jimmy Conley, and Matt George.

This year, our staff will included assistant coaches Michael Freeman, Ryan Dill and Dantae Mitchell. This looks to be an exciting staff filled with knowledge, energy, and ready to push the girls in all the right directions.

As a coaching staff we are all on the same page with this team on where they are at, and where they are going and what needs to happen along the way.”

Does your team face any challenges with schedules? If yes, how do you manage that?

“There are always obstacles to face when you have a larger National team with athletes from all over the place, but our girls are very driven and work hard to accomplish their goals.

I keep in constant contact with each athlete, regardless of whether they are from Oklahoma or out of state. I make sure they are not just doing what they need to be doing as far as softball goes, but check on the academics, and other things happening in their lives. I make myself available at all times if they need.

Typically, we do not have too much trouble filling a high-level roster as we graduate athletes every year. We have been blessed building a younger-aged culture to help step into the roles of our graduates. Being a newer program (the EPIC Fastpitch organization is starting in its 4th year), we have had a large amount of players join from outside of our organization. I believe moving forward we will have a larger pull from within the organization as we constantly are building our younger athletes up to be the absolute best they can be. This will be our testimony to our true growth.

One thing Epic takes pride in is building athletes up, guiding them, training them, and teaching them from a young age and up.”

What are your primary goals and objectives for your team?

“With this team being an older team made up of mostly older high school-aged players, I would say that our goal is to continue to get better in our craft, have fun and win! We also want to create a competitive atmosphere while preparing for college. We have a roster of 22 girls and out of those 22 girls, 18 have already signed with colleges for next year.

I also want to teach them what to expect in the years to come – what does college ball look like, what to expect from academics and athletics in college and what will be expected from them on and off the fields. My goal is for them to go in as prepared as they possibly can be for nothing short of complete success.”

In your opinion, what traits make your organization unique?

“Our family atmosphere – with most everyone involved – truly cares for our young athletes. Not just what they are doing right now, but where they are headed during their college years and even adult years after that.

We also take a lot of pride in the training that our athletes receive and where they get it. We make sure all of the training staff available are the best of the best, with years of knowledge and experience. We strive to make sure that the training facilities that are available to them are the best they can be.

Additionally, we are constantly looking for new events to attend, or programs to get the athletes involved with.”

Can you give some analysis/perspective on your team for 2024?

“This is tough because I have so many very talented young athletes! We are a team and it takes contribution from all of our athletes pulling on the same rope in the same direction. That’s how we will be successful – through hard work and a true team-based atmosphere; energy brings positive vibes and a great culture.”

What are your short-term goals for your team?

“Our short term goals for this year would be to continue to help the few still uncommitted athletes to find a great home for college so they can continue to pursue their dreams.”

What are your long-term goals for your team?

“Our long term goals are to continue to be successful and help prepare my athletes for college and life after college. I don’t just want to see them succeed while I have them, but want to continue to watch their success for years to come.”

2024 College Preview: Washburn University

By: Madison Feldhahn

Let’s dance.

That’s the theme of the 2024 season for Brenda Holaday and Washburn University.

“You want to get to the dance – postseason – but also let’s find reasons every day to dance, to celebrate what we’re doing. One of the things we do after every practice is the kids get to pick who they thought had an outstanding practice. Then they get in a circle and do their little dance move. Some days it’s one kid and some days it’s two or three kids,” Holaday told Top Gun Events. “We do something at the end of every game – who’s dancing, who’s dancing? The kids have just taken it on their own and it’s created a togetherness of them.”

The Ichabods have a lot to dance for after starting their season 7-2, including a win over #12 Southern Arkansas University in nine innings. Their only losses have come in a 1-3 game against Wingate University and a 0-1 game against #8 UT-Tyler.

“We fared well against top 15 teams in the nation right out of the gate, which I think is always a good sign. We’re playing as tough a schedule as we’ve played since I’ve been here. I feel like that’s what we need to do to build ourselves for an opportunity for the postseason,” said Holaday.

Building their résumé for postseason is a priority for Holaday after the heartbreaking end to the 2023 season. The Ichabods finished fifth in the MIAAA regular season and finished 1-2 in the MIAA Championship Tournament with losses to the University of Central Missouri and Missouri Southern. Holaday and her Ichabods were looking forward to the NCAA Tournament, but after an upset in the Great American Conference, the team was not selected.

“I would say it ended kind of disappointing and sad for us because I felt like we were a team that could compete at that level. At the same time, we also had some pretty significant injuries to some really important players in our lineup,” said Holaday. “All in all, it was a great season. Our kids battled, but we sure would’ve liked to be a little healthier at the end and been able to get into the postseason.”

Another focus for Washburn this year was to create more depth on their roster. The Icahbods carry a roster of 22 this season, featuring six freshman and four transfers.

“I think one of the weaknesses in our squad that last couple years is we’ve always carried a small roster, 17 or 18 kids. So, when we got to the end of the season, if we had some injuries, if kids are tired and worn down, we didn’t have the depth that we needed to finish strong. I feel like we really have that this year, and we definitely started that way,” Holaday said.

Her seasoned team includes 12 juniors and seniors. Three of her seniors – Marrit Mead, Auty Schreiner and Jaycee Ginter – have played all four years for her. Altogether, the four seniors have played a combined 537 games for Washburn.

“When you have those three kids [Mead, Schreiner and Ginter] at the center of what you’re trying to do and they’ve been on the field for us since they were freshmen, it’s a really good core group to build around,” said Holaday.

Of course, the Ichabods’ ultimate goal is to make the NCAA tournament, but Holaday wants her team to enjoy the journey. She’s made changes in her coaching style to make sure she does the same. After spending her entire coaching career coaching third base, she’s now in the dugout and in tune with her athlete’s emotions. It’s helping Holaday and her team to find reasons to dance every day.

“Our kids have their eyes on the goal. But I think we’re in a little better place emotionally with that. We’re not driven by that every day,” Holaday said. “We’re driven by giving our best, encouraging each other, supporting each other. We’re not really spending so much time talking about an ultimate prize. Let’s make each day count and enjoy each day and trust that that process will get us where we want to go.”

The Ichabods return home to Topeka for the Washburn Invite from February 23 to 25. MIAA conference play will begin on March 8 with a doubleheader at the University of Central Oklahoma. Their regular season concludes on April 27. The MIAA Championship Tournament starts May 1.

College 2024 Preview: University of Saint Mary Spires Gear Up for 2024 with Renewed Energy and Focus; Eyes Growth for the Future of Program

By: Jeff Strange

2023 Overall Record: 24-25

Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Record: 7-17

Coming off a 24-25 season, the University of Saint Mary brought in new head coach Kayleigh Behymer-Swan this past fall to lead the Spires softball program. The Spires are returning two Second Team All-Conference selections in Junior Outfielder, Alexis McDaniel, and Senior Outfielder, Sadie McWilliams. Additionally, KCAC Honorable Mention selections Natalie Bruce (Jr./3B), Briana Solis (So./UTL), Allyson Dias (Gr./C), and Allie Cox (Jr./RHP) return as well for the Spires, as they open up their 2024 campaign on February 9 in Mesquite, Tex. Saint Mary will be tested right out of the gate against perennial NAIA powerhouse and preseason top-10 team Oklahoma City at 12:15pm this Friday afternoon.

With excitement looming as the spring season approaches for the Spires, Top Gun Events caught up with head coach Behymer-Swan to get her thoughts on the upcoming season:

This is your first season at the helm with St. Mary…how would you describe your experience taking over the program?

“Coming in this past fall, I could see that this team had a great deal of talent. The skillsets of our athletes has honestly impressed me since day one. Each of our athletes have very big personalities, which has been fun to get to know. However, with that has come a need to teach them that there are expectations of high standards and accountability needed. The girls have begun to buy into this approach and it’s beginning to show at practices; they’re starting to do the little things right and they’re taking pride in executing the small aspects of the game that can lead to big results. We have largely made it a point to break the game back down to the fundamentals and emphasizing the importance of understanding that everyone has a job on the field and everyone can play a role into the outcome of the game.

In the fall, we stressed to the girls to test their limits and to not settle – we want them to want more! We also broke them down to the very basics; not only with the mechanics but also with their knowledge of the game. We’ve also tested them from a mental standpoint; there’s a workout that has kind of become a bit of a tradition amongst KC area coaches that we call 26 minutes. It’s a grueling conditioning and mental workout that has tested the girls to push themselves past their comfort zones. Early on, the girls struggled keeping up with it but now they own it! It’s been fun to watch their overall growth and buy into what we’ve implemented into the program and I’m very excited to see where we’re headed.”

Can you give some background information on your coaching and playing experience?

“I played collegiately at Avila University, graduating in 2019. After I graduated in 2019, I went to Wingate University as a Graduate Assistant for a year. In 2020, I was a Graduate Assistant at Baker University, finishing my Master’s Degree. I stuck at Baker after I completed my degree as an assistant coach until 2023. I took over at U. of Saint Mary in the fall of 2023; this is my first season as a head coach.”

Can you give some background information on your coaching staff?

“Up until mid-November of 2023, I was running the program on my own. However, we were very fortunate to bring on Elsa Skeie at that point and she has brought a wealth of knowledge and excitement that has been huge for our program. Elsa has been all-in since the beginning and very passionate towards her role. She has done a great job working with our infielders (she was an infielder at Luther College in Decorah, IA).

I primarily work with the pitchers and catchers. Coach Skeie and I both work with our hitters and outfielders.”

Can you give some analysis/perspective on your team for 2024?

“I believe that we have a true mix on offense. We have speed on the bases and in the field. There was an offensive approach that was pushed in the past here; we have brought on a different approach, retraining our hitters as we move forward. We are pushing line drives and hitting the ball hard as opposed to trying to lift everything. We’re trying to utilize our athleticism as a useful tool as well. Depending on the situation, who we are playing, etc. we may look to bunt, or we may look to drive the ball hard; ultimately, we are aiming to utilize our athleticism so that we are dangerous in any situation.

In the circle, we’ve got six arms – five that are active and one that is returning from an injury. Each girl is different in her approach and what they bring to the field; this is a great luxury to have as a coach.

We have a freshman that throws with good speed and movement. We have a sophomore lefty that has excellent spin and nasty movement. We have another sophomore that throws hard and has a unique motion, which is another tough look for hitters. We have another freshman that creates great spin along with a very good change up. My rotation is rounded out by a junior that is very consistent, throws a great drop ball and displays a bulldog demeanor in the circle. It’s going to be fun working with each girl this spring and employing each, based on matchups and situations.

At catcher, we have Allyson Dias who has a great arm and bat. Her best attribute is that she is an exceptional leader. We also have three freshmen catchers that bring some exciting qualities to our roster.

My outfield is very fast with great range. Lexi McDaniels is my centerfielder and is a special athlete. She has incredible speed while also leading the team in home runs last season. She’s also very intelligent; she’s second in her class as a nursing major and loves life, has a great sense of humor but also understands how to dial it in and put in hard work.

Sadie McWilliams also patrols the outfield and was actually recruited by myself while I was at Wingate University. After spending a year at Wingate, she decided to come play closer to home (she’s from Basehor, KS). Sadie is in her senior year and I’m very happy to have her with us here at Saint Mary. She has so much power at the plate, is always trying to learn more and is a great leader for our team. She’s a great student with a bright future ahead of her and I’m proud that I’ve been able to coach her.

On the infield, we have a great amount of experience with three seniors and one junior. Their chemistry and pull for each other is full of contagious energy.”

What are your short-term goals for the program?

“My hope is to finish with an over .500 winning percentage this season. We have the talent there to achieve this; it’s up to us to execute. However, I don’t want to simply settle for that; we’re driving the competitive edge out of these girls. Myself and Coach Skeie are making it a point to change the mentality of this program, having these girls understand that they are all very capable athletes and that we have the talent to succeed. Let’s compete in conference, let’s compete with the powerhouse programs and let’s translate our athleticism into success. If we can collectively buy into this mentality, we can compete with the best programs.”

What are your long-term goals for the program?

“I’ve mapped out an ideal game plan for how I’d like to construct our roster and program so that we can compete at the highest level possible over the next several seasons. If we can recruit effectively, I’m hoping to find our program competing for a national title in the upcoming seasons.

We have a very good facility; our field is turf and we have access to several different weight rooms that we are able to utilize. U. of Saint Mary has a very nice campus, with beautiful architecture displayed throughout the premises. The staff has a great feel for their students; the professors are going to know their students’ names and are there to help our students succeed. The academic departments work well with the athletic departments. Overall, there’s a lot that we can offer as recruiting elements that I’m excited to utilize as we aim to grow our program.”

Recruiting? Obviously camps being one avenue…But can you share other approaches that your program takes? Do you attend showcase events to scout athletes? Large-scale national tournaments? Or are you more focused on regional events? Does your program have a geographic barometer that it generally covers? Any particular events that you’ve covered in the past that you anticipate continuing to cover in the future?

“We have plans to initiate camps this upcoming summer; dates will be determined as we get closer to then. We’ll plan to host additional camps next fall and winter as well.

We get emails very frequently from recruiting platforms, which is great. I personally like to see athletes send me their info with videos (or links to videos) that have taken the time to research our university and program as well.

Establishing relationships with travel ball coaches has been a huge asset. Getting input and feedback from reliable sources helps initiate contact with prospective student athletes as well.

We largely spend the bulk of our time in the Midwest when going to watch prospective athletes; however, we don’t want to limit ourselves to one geographic location. We have to plan properly when it comes to traveling to see talent but again the relationships that we’ve built with organizations and coaching staffs helps tremendously in aiding with finding talent to help our program.”

College 2024 Preview: Eastern Illinois University Looks to Build Upon Successful 2023 Campaign; has high hopes for 2024

By: Jeff Strange

2023 Overall Record: 34-21

Ohio Valley Conference Record: 16-6

Coming off a 34-21 season, the Eastern Illinois University Panthers made headlines in 2023 as they brought home their first Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Championship in school history, along with making their first appearance in the NCAA Division 1 Regionals in their program’s tenure. Entering the OVC tournament as the number 2 seed, the Panthers and Head Coach Tara Archibald went 3-0 in the event held at Choccolocco Park in Oxford, AL as Junior RHP Olivia Price logged 21 Innings Pitched, while allowing just 1 Earned Run over that frame of work.

Bringing home the title of Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Champions hurled the Eastern Illinois University team into their first NCAA Regional appearance, as they traveled north to Drysdale Field in Evanston, IL. The Panthers drew a powerful Northwestern squad in game one, falling 2-0 in a tight contest. EIU’s 2023 season concluded on May 20, 2023 as they battled tough against Miami (Ohio), ultimately dropping that game 4-0.

Coach Archibald enters her fifth season at the helm for the Panthers softball program, guiding the EIU program to an overall record of 95-80 during her reign as the program’s head coach. The daughter of University of Louisiana Head Coach and Women’s Professional Fastpitch team Smash it Sports Vipers Head Coach Gerry Glasco, Archibald played her collegiate softball at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, helping the Salukis earn their first-ever NCAA tournament win in 2003 and advancing to the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance. Archibald also excelled in the classroom at SIUC as a four-time NCAA Scholar Athlete Award Winner while earning the Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner’s Academic Excellence Award in 2003. Along the way to EIU, Coach Archibald spent time as an assistant coach at the University of Georgia as well as an assistant coach at Illinois State University before taking over at Eastern Illinois in 2020.

With the Panthers opening up their season on February 9th at the Mardi Gras Mambo Tournament in Youngsville, LA, Top Gun Events Media caught up with Coach Archibald to get her feedback on several key elements for the Eastern Illinois University Panthers Softball Program:

Entering into your 5th season this year as the head coach for Eastern Illinois University, you orchestrated a 34-21 season in 2023, winning the OVC Tournament and taking EIU to the school’s first ever NCAA regional. Can you hit on some key points/highlights from this past season, leading up to the OVC tournament and the NCAA Regional?

“From a team perspective, it took a little bit to build that momentum. I like to say that the momentum really started a couple of years ago as we slowly built the confidence and belief that contending for the OVC title was something that we could accomplish here at Eastern. Last year, we finally caught that momentum and got some key wins that helped our players believe that we could come out on top. Throughout the regular 2023 season, we were right there with SEMO (Southeast Missouri State University) at the top of the conference standings until the second to last weekend, when we stubbed our toe a little bit against Lindenwood. However, once we went into the OVC tournament, our athletes really displayed a laser-focus that I’ll never forget….just from the time we got off of the bus for the tournament, I felt that their focus and intent was really locked in and the girls were determined not to come home without a great showing at the event. It was definitely fun to watch the program grow from that sense of that we believe that we can do this and now let’s go and get it done.”

Taking home a first-place finish in the OVC tournament last season, can you describe some of your thoughts on the event?

“Oxford did a great job hosting that event. Choccolocco Park is a great softball venue with a gorgeous field. Having the tournament on a neutral site gave all of the teams in the event an opportunity to feel post-season play. It was a long week for our athletes and coaches; we played on Sunday, practiced on Monday morning, then left on Monday afternoon and endured a close to 10-hour bus ride aiming to arrive there by Monday night all so that we could practice on Tuesday before the event began. We had a bye on Wednesday and started play on Thursday vs. a tough Southern Indiana team. Throughout the duration, our team just maintained a locked-in mentality and focus that you could sense was present leading up to the tournament and during the event. Pitcher Olivia Price threw all three games for us that tournament and was absolutely lights out – it was fun to watch! The championship game against SIUE was a very well played game; we got the clutch hit, our defense rose to the occasion and Liv was able to shut them down in the circle. Just great pitching from both teams – SIUE’s pitcher (Syd Baalman) was outstanding as well. Overall a great venue, great crowd, beautiful weather the day of the championship game and a great moment for EIU softball.”

The NCAA Regionals – you battled against a strong Northwestern team, falling to them 2-0…then hung in against Miami (OH) with it being a 1-0 game until Miami put up 3 runs in the 5th inning, giving them a 4-0 lead and ultimately holding on for the win….can you describe some of your thoughts on the event?

“The week itself was kind of a whirlwind; we had done something that the program had never done before by winning the OVC tournament and we were 10 hours away from home. We enjoyed the moment of the OVC tournament win, celebrating on the field in Oxford and enjoying the moment with family and friends, but reality eventually kicked in; we had a long bus ride home. For me as a coach, I really wanted to make sure that throughout the upcoming week our players really took in the moment and understood the gravity of what they had just done for EIU’s program, so I wanted to make sure that we celebrated the selection show the right way.

When we went to regionals, we were really letting them enjoy the moment of being there; certainly, we went there with intentions of winning our ballgames, but at the same time, we wanted to make sure that they had a great experience and understood the gravity of what they had accomplished. We were excited to go to Drysdale Field in Evanston (Illinois); I knew that our fans would be able to travel well there versus the conference tournament. We drew Northwestern in our first game – they are such a good program and well coached. I thought that we would have a shot to play a close ballgame if we could settle in and get comfortable. From the moment we got there, our players didn’t get overwhelmed and knew that they belonged. I was very proud of how we played against Northwestern; we were just one or two swings away from a different outcome and Olivia (Price) just threw an absolute gem against a very good lineup.

We came back the next day against Miami of Ohio and Olivia held her own and kept us in there until late in the game. Again, we had bases loaded and we hit a line drive that their leftfielder made an incredible play on; if that ball gets down, we probably clear the bases and take the lead. We competed very well and we were all very proud of that. I think it completely changed the standard of our program to where now, we’re preparing for how do we get back to regionals and how do we get ourselves to where we can win a regional.”

Moving into 2024, can you give some background information on your coaching staff?

“We’re kind of an all hands on deck program with our coaching staff. When we’re working with hitters, all of the coaches help out. When we are in the bullpen, everyone can jump in and when we’re working defense, everyone can help with defense. We like to have all of the coaches involved in all areas of the game.

Toby Ring joined our staff last year as a volunteer; he’s a former men’s fast pitch player with a ton of experience in the game. He just recently was inducted into the men’s fast pitch Hall of Fame in Central Illinois. Toby was a huge piece with what we accomplished last year and we are excited to have him back this year.

We just added Lisaira Daniels as an assistant this past August. I’ve known Lisaira for a very long time. She played with Georgia and Syracuse has the experience of playing in the College World Series; she’s brought a different mentality throughout the fall, she can relate to the players in that she’s been in postseason play many times throughout her playing career. Her mentality has helped a ton, holding our players to a different standard and continuing to push the growth of our program.

Can you give some analysis/perspective on your team for 2024?

“We have an interesting mix. We are returning the majority of the key pieces from last season. However, we have more newcomers than we have returning athletes. The returning athletes all played huge roles in what we accomplished last year. It’s been fun to watch this team develop it’s own identity versus the team that we had last year. This year’s squad is going to be completely different than last year’s squad in that this is a much faster, much more athletic team. Last year’s team probably had more power. Our offense is going to look a little bit more different from the way we play the game, but we have a great amount of experience.

Most of our infield is all back. The left side – Kendall Grover and Bri Gonzalez both had incredible seasons last year.

Our top two pitchers – Olivia Price and Rachel Kaufman – are back. That’s huge for us in the circle.

Aryn Henke is our only returning outfielder. However, we did pick up Sophie Cerveny who was a starter for Nebraska-Omaha last year and played in a regional as well. She has fit in extremely well with our team from a mindset and goals perspective, bringing excellent leadership skills as well.

We’ve got a couple of spots that during preseason we’ll be working to figure out who fills roles the best, but for the most part I feel that we are an experienced team that knows what to expect and has been battle tested. Ultimately, our goal will be to figure out who we are as this year’s team and how we’re going to go out and win ballgames. Hopefully as we get out of preseason, we’ll have a really good idea of what we have to do to win conference ballgames.”

What are your short-term goals for the program?

“First and foremost, figuring out who we are exactly as a team, what we do best and how we’re going to win ballgames. Ultimately, how are we going to compete best together as team…

We are hoping to put ourselves in a position so that at the end of the year we can hold a high seed entering into the OVC tournament, and then hopefully go on a run and win the OVC tournament so that we can compete in a regional again.

If we can get into a regional again this year, the goal is to not just go there but let’s go in there and try to win it.

However, to be honest we don’t talk about that too much. It’s more about how can we become the best versions of ourselves and what do we need to do today to help ourselves to be the best team that this team can be and then at the end of the year to see where we are at. We’re all very motivated and very excited about this very talented group.”

What are your long-term goals for the program?

“My goal is that we can continue to stay on the path that we are on and continue to grow the program every year. I grew up in Southern Illinois about two hours from here, so for me to be able to put a high quality product on the field – a program that has the opportunity to be in the top third of the conference every year, competing for a chance to win a conference championship every year and providing athletes with an experience to go to regionals – that’s the goal. My hope is that we can put out a product that people in Central Illinois are excited to watch along with developing our athletes to be role models for other young girls in the area. I’m proud of what we’ve done here and excited that this group is really motivated to leave the program better than they found it.”

Recruiting? Obviously camps being one avenue…But can you share other approaches that your program takes? Do you attend showcase events to scout athletes? Large-scale national tournaments? Or are you more focused on regional events? Does your program have a geographic barometer that it generally covers? Any particular events that you’ve covered in the past that you anticipate continuing to cover in the future?

“In the summer, we try to spend as much time in the Midwest as we can. However, we also will venture out beyond our backyard. I typically go out to California at least once a summer. We’re on the circuit and really enjoy getting to get out in the summer and watch the top events in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas City, etc. It’s so exciting for our sport right now how much softball has grown and how many great young players there are in the game.”

Lastly, do you have any information to share for prospective athletes in regards to camp information for 2024?

“I can tell you that there are a lot of players on our team that we wouldn’t have if they hadn’t come to one of our camps. We definitely use camps to help fill our roster. We’ll do a lot of camps in the summer; be on the lookout for in the beginning of June and throughout July as well. We’re possibly looking at adding a team camp during the summer as well. Dates will be announced as we get closer to then.”

College 2024 Preview: Avila University Hoping to Continue Trend of Success in 2024

College 2024 Preview: Avila University Hoping to Continue Trend of Success in 2024

By Jeff Strange

2023 Overall Record: 35-21

Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Record: 16-8

Cinco de Mayo 2023 was a day of celebration for the Avila University softball program, as the Eagles brought home their first KCAC title in school history, defeating Oklahoma Wesleyan University in Great Bend, KS.

The conference victory helped secure Avila’s berth to the NAIA National Softball Championship, their first trip since 2019. The Eagles opening round of softball was held in Chickasha, OK as the number 4 seed in a pool that included University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, Mobile University (AL), and Cottey College.

Avila pulled out a win against a tough Cottey College squad, but fell to top seeded Science and Arts, setting up an elimination matchup between the Eagles and the number 13 ranked team in the NAIA, the Mobile University Rams.

Mobile got off to an early lead, but Avila kept battling all the way to the end before ultimately succumbing to a 6-2 loss, ending another successful season for the Eagles program.

For a program that was sometimes turning in single-digit win seasons 10-15 years ago, Avila’s softball program has turned itself into a force to be reckoned with in recent seasons, finding themselves consistently competing for conference and tournament titles while sprinkling in some postseason appearances along the way. Coach Charlie Kennedy is entering his 3rd season at the helm at Avila and his 23rd season as a collegiate softball head coach. Kennedy has amassed a career record 618-434-3 in his coaching career, which includes stints at Division 1 Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, Division II UMSL, Division III Maryville and NAIA Lindenwood-Belleville.

Moving into 2024, there is a sense of excitement for Head Coach Charlie Kennedy, his coaching staff and his group of athletes. Top Gun Events Media caught up with Coach Kennedy to get his perspective on several key elements for the Avila University Softball Program:

Your program had a successful season in 2023; can you detail your thoughts on the season as a whole?

“We brought back seven kids from our previous season and 19 new athletes last fall. The program received an infusion of talent – I had 12 freshmen come in and seven transfers, along with good talent returning. Our depth was a key. We had strong pitching and a strong catcher behind the plate; it just took us awhile to come together with that many new faces. I can tell you that at one point of the season, I didn’t see us pulling off a conference tournament championship. I felt that we could compete in it and that we had the talent to do it, but early on we just weren’t all on the same page.

However, it came together very quickly towards the end of the season. The last conference doubleheader on the road, we were handed two losses against a team that was two spots ahead of us in our conference and it just didn’t taste good. A few days later, we took a trip to St. Louis and split with Missouri Baptist, who had just won their conference and it gave us a jolt going into the KCAC tournament, where we went undefeated. Through all of the ups-and-downs of the season, we just continued to work hard and grind out game after game and practice after practice. It was a great honor to watch the ladies come together at the end of the season and make a run into the postseason.”

Can you give some background information on your coaching staff?

“Aldyn Wildey is my pitching coach – she pitched a few years at Johnson County and was recruited to pitch at the University of Kansas but unfortunately blew out her ACL and didn’t get to throw her junior and senior years. Aldyn is very knowledgable and was instrumental last year to our pitching staff.

Mike MacFarlane, who played with the Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s – he was a 12 year major league baseball catcher; he’s our catching and hitting coach. Very sound fundamentals in hitting.

Mimi Maggard was player of the year in the Sun Coast Conference in Florida at Webber International University. She’s in her second year here and plays a huge role for us.”

Can you give some analysis/perspective on your team for 2024?

“We return 18 girls from last year’s team. We lost our top pitcher who had 20 of our 35 wins (Payton Walter) and our top catcher (Talley Cole), but I think what we have brought in over the past few years will help fill those roles very well. What we our right now is a team that has great depth, good pitching and great speed – we were number two in the country in stolen bases last season, led by OF Chelsea Kurtz, who swiped 72 bases in 2023 which was second overall in the NAIA last year. We added more speed to the lineup as well with incoming athletes. We’re a team that won’t be taken lightly this year; we were picked to take third in the conference with the preseason rankings. We were two wins away from the next round of the NAIA World Series last season and I think that our seniors are hungry to get back this season.

I feel that we are going to execute in situations. We bunt very well, we run the bases well, we play outstanding defense, and we can hit. We start out our season in Texas playing Texas A&M – San Antonio and Our Lady of the Lake (NAIA #7 preseason ranked team) right out of the gate. A month later, we are in California with Hope International (NAIA #19 preseason ranked team), Vanguard, Menlo and Westcliff. I feel that going to play these teams right at the start of the season will help build some mental toughness for our pitchers, offense and defense that will help us grow.”

What are your short-term goals for the program?

“It is a goal to break the top 25 rankings in the NAIA and challenge ourselves early on in the season so that we are battle tested when we start conference play and move into the KCAC tournament. If we can win our conference outright and/or win our conference tournament, that will secure us another automatic bid to the NAIA Championship Tournament. It’s an exciting time for us right now. We’ve started up spring practices and we’re a month away from playing our opener in Texas.”

What are your long-term goals for the program?

“If you have the consistency in the coaching staff and the ability to put talent on the field every year, then long-term is having Avila University as a recognized name as a tough team to beat. We want to be a perennial name as a tough opponent. We’ll continue to play a tough schedule and prepare our athletes to be strong opponent on game day.”

Lastly, do you have any information to share for prospective athletes in regards to camp information for 2024?

We will be running a camp on February 25th. The link for the camp is:


*The Avila University Eagles will open their season on February 9th at the Our Lady of the Lake University Saints Classic in San Antonio, TX squaring off against Texas A&M University – San Antonio and Our Lady of the Lake University that Friday afternoon.*


College 2024 Preview: Lindenwood University Lions look for continued Growth in 2024

College 2024 Preview: Lindenwood University Lions look for continued Growth in 2024

By Jeff Strange

2023 Overall Record                                     2023 Ohio Valley Conference Record

                        16-32                                                                           8-15

Coming off a 16-32 season – their first at the Division 1 level – the Lindenwood University softball team heads into the 2024 campaign returning two all-conference athletes (Jr. OF Irelynn West and So. IF Dallis Darnell) and according to Head Coach Erin Brown, a better idea of what to expect as they enter their second season in the Ohio Valley Conference. After a very successful run at the Division 2 level – the Lions finished out 2022 with a 35-13 overall record – Lindenwood was able to earn a berth in the OVC tournament last May as a first-year D1 program, with several highlights along the way.

Coach Brown enters her third season leading the Lions program, and her 18th season overall as a head coach in the collegiate ranks. Getting her start in 2004 running NCAA DIII Westminster College, Brown spent 2 years at the helm in Fulton, MO before heading to her alma mater at Truman State University, where she had previously carved out a successful playing career. Brown was the head coach at Truman State for 13 seasons, rejuvenating the program en route to a career 348-302 record along the way. Brown took over at Lindenwood University in 2021-2022 and has enjoyed six NCAA tournament appearances through her years leading three programs.

Top Gun Events Media caught up with Coach Brown to get her feedback on several key elements for the Lindenwood Lions Softball Program:

The Lindenwood softball program made the leap last season into the NCAA Division 1 ranks, joining the Ohio Valley Conference. Going from a very successful season in 2022 as a Division 2 program in the GLVC to a new conference at the Division 1 level, can you discuss some of the adjustments that your program had to make and endure?

“We’re still making the adjustments and I think will be for a few years. We decided to keep our team as it was, meaning we did not replace them with “DI” players. That first year we tried to get a few transfers that might make a difference right away but were limited to our 7.2 scholarships for NCAA DII programs. For the 2024-2025 year we are getting a scholarship bump, so we feel like that will help us recruit more players who are able to help us compete in the OVC. From an athlete’s perspective, I think last year was challenging for that team because they did not always know if they were “good enough.” We had a lot of conversations about focusing on what we had control over and that it was the same game they’ve been playing since they were little. I think it took a while for them to believe they could have success and once they did, then we could see a shift in our overall mindset, which resulted in more success as a team. The season had some ups-and-downs, but we have a better idea of what to expect for this upcoming season. Getting players to understand it can be hard and to expect that and embrace the challenge is something we talk about often. The pitching is more complete at this level; most pitchers have a changeup and 2-3 great pitches with command. We faced some great pitching at the DII level but they might not have/or need to throw a changeup to be dominate. Defensively most teams seem to have great overhand velo and it seems like everyone has above average speed as well. It’s just adjusting to who is playing the game, like at any level bump that players experience in their career.”

Lindenwood University Head Coach Erin Brown walks off as the Lady Lions celebrate a big win

Can you give some background information on your coaching staff?

“My assistant Ali Brems is from Wisconsin and played at Lewis University; I coached against her while at Truman. She had a successful career at Lewis and went on to become a Graduate Assistant there before coming to Kirksville, MO to be my assistant for my last two years at Truman. She has her master’s in both leadership and counseling. Ali is the magic behind all our social media posts and organizes our recruiting. Ali was a lefty hitter and right-handed pitcher. She had two different surgeries from pitching, including thoracic outlet. She is passionate about injury prevention as a result and has worked closely with OGX (formerly S2 Breakthrough in Chicago) to learn more about biomechanics and coaching strategies that honor each player’s individual body. Ali works with our pitching staff.

Christa Reisinger played for me at Truman State. She was a lefty slapper/power hitter -I know, doesn’t happen too often – and played OF. She was an All-American and could have played at the DI level. We got lucky that she came to Truman. It helped that she grew up on a farm and majored in agriculture. Christa works with our outfield and hitters.

I work with the infielders, catchers, and hitters.

Can you hit on some key points/highlights from this past season?

“I think a big highlight for us was sweeping Eastern Illinois, who went on to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament and represent the OVC in the NCAA tournament. We made the conference tournament our first year in the league, beating out other teams who have been at the DI level for years. We had a couple of players earn all-conference. When we made the jump, we entered 4 years of being unable to compete in the NCAA tournament. We can compete and win the OVC tournament but could not move forward with a bid. Making the NCAA tournament is a great experience so when we did not have that opportunity, I wanted to provide them with some other experience moments and traveling to play Oregon was a great opportunity. Playing at their facility, hitting & lifting there was incredible and then making sure we got to the Pacific coast was on our list. It was a busy few days, but the girls really enjoyed that experience.”

The Lindenwood Lions taking time to celebrate National Student-Athlete Day while at Jane Sanders Stadium in the University of Oregon

Playing in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament for the first time in 2023, can you describe some of your thoughts on the event?

“The OVC tournament had a similar feel to the NCAA tournaments I’ve been to in the past. Choccolocco Park is a great facility. The OVC tournament is moving to Peoria for the 2024 season. We will play our games at the Louisville Slugger complex on Bradley University’s field. We’re looking forward to a shorter drive because the location was the toughest part of the event in 2023. You get a practice day before the tournament starts so we had to travel down the day before our practice day to get there in time – which meant that we had to leave on a Monday after playing our last regular scheduled game on Sunday. I’m looking forward to this new venue for 2024 and to see how it might change the feel of the OVC tournament.”

Can you give some analysis/perspective on your team for 2024?

“Staying healthy will be key, especially for our pitchers. We have one pitcher who is injured and out for the season, so we have brought a current outfielder and former pitcher back to the circle to potentially add some depth for our staff. We’re graduating a lot in the 2024 class. We have eight seniors (2 who are 5th years), 6 juniors, 5 sophomores & 5 freshmen. We have four pitchers, three catchers and nine infielders, five outfielders and three true utility players who have several options defensively. We have a couple of players who are injured and won’t be playing this spring. In total, we have a roster of 24, but 22 who will be able to play. We have more depth this year than we did last year. Last spring, we had some injuries and ended up shifting people around to make it work – it was a challenge. Having the depth this year is great and we will likely keep a roster over 20 moving forward for that reason.”

Your facility is undergoing upgrades; can you elaborate on those?

“Our facility was one of the nicer ones in the OVC and we just got new turf and new batting cages. New netting/padding in front of our dugouts is scheduled to go in before our home opener this spring. In addition to that, we have had to make some facility adjustments for ESPN+ streaming and video replay for umpire review. We will have the capability for umpire review this year, but the ESPN+ streaming will be live for the 2025 season. From the facility standpoint, I believe now we are one of, if not the best facility in the OVC.”

What are your short-term goals for the program?

“Short term goals are to continue to win more games and continue to finish higher in the OVC standings each year…start winning some recruits that our competitors are also recruiting. We’ve seen that a little in the 2025 recruiting class. Ultimately we also want to provide our players with a great experience while they are at Lindenwood.”

Infielders Tori Hatton (left) and Dallis Darnell (right) are two key components returning for the 2024 season

What are your long-term goals for the program?

“We want to be able to compete for the OVC championship when we are eligible to earn a bid, by 2027. We want to be one of the top programs for our size in the Midwest by 2027. We want to continue to provide our players with a top-notch experience…potentially taking a trip to Europe along with scheduling opponents that give our players the opportunity to play at incredible facilities and unique locations.”

Lastly, do you have any information to share for prospective athletes in regards to camp information for 2024?

“We will be having camps in May, June, August, and November/December. Specific dates have not yet been confirmed, but those should be out within the next several weeks.”

*The Lindenwood Lions will open their season on February 9th at the UIW Kickoff Classic in San Antonio, TX squaring off against Prairie View A&M University and University of the Incarnate Word that Friday afternoon.*