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.”

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