Lady Bisons ‘book’ first trip NCAA Tournament since ’14

Friday, May 17, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 20
By Rhiannon Potkey

“It’s going to be really cool to say that we played in the NCAAs and had a chance to experience it,” says senior Sarah Higgins of Murfreesboro.

-- Photograph By Brad Young Courtesy Of Lipscomb Athletics

There was never any concern about finding leaders. The Lipscomb softball team had eight seniors returning this season, and they were all hungry to win titles and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their careers.

It was more a matter of channeling their unique personalities in the same direction.

Taking a page from the school’s baseball team, Lipscomb head coach Kristin Ryman decided to have the Lady Bisons read Jon Gordon’s book “The Power of a Positive Team.”

They began reading a chapter nearly every week once the regular season started and held discussions the night before games.

Sometimes the chapter reviews were led by the coaches, and sometimes they were led by the seniors.

“The quality of the discussions in those meetings blew me away by how much insight they were offering to each other and how much they were gaining from reading the book,” Ryman says. “They didn’t just look at it like it was something the coaches wanted them to do. They were interested in what each chapter offered and meeting the different challenges head on.”

The more the Lady Bisons read, the more they learned about their teammates and began developing more trust in each other.

The lessons started manifesting on the field, and Lipscomb gradually realized its full potential.

The Lady Bisons made a strong closing run to the season to capture the Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

Lipscomb (41-13-1) will be making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2014 – and third in program history – when it plays Arizona State on Friday at 3 p.m. CT in the Tuscaloosa Regional. Host Alabama, the No. 8 national seed, plays Alabama State in the other regional game.

The Lady Bisons see their name pop on the screen during the NCAA Selection Show.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Lipscomb Athletics

“It feels amazing. I grew up seeing these games on TV, and this is what everyone dreams about and talks about,” says Lipscomb senior Sarah Higgins of Murfreesboro. “It’s going to be really cool to say that we played in the NCAAs and had a chance to experience it.”

Higgins admits there was a little skepticism when the team was initially given Gordon’s book to read. They wondered how it could possibly help with leadership development.

“There was a little bit of resistance to the change and to the book,” she acknowledges. “But I think as the year went on and the more we talked about it, we could see instances where it could be employed and where we could grow, and I think there has been a lot of growth in our team. It has really been crucial and made a difference in us.”

Not everything was easy. There were rough spots along the way. But they were helped by being more open and transparent with each other.

“I really learned how to face conflict and not be scared of it,” Higgins adds. “We learned how to talk to each other. There is a time and a place for every conversation and we don’t have to be scared of a disagreement or argument or when something doesn’t go our way because we know how to handle it.”

Lipscomb’s late-season surge included winning 13 consecutive games and 20 of its last 21. The Lady Bisons swept their last regular-season series against Florida Gulf Coast to clinch the ASU regular-season title, and remained in Fort Myers, Florida, for the ASUN tournament

Lipscomb spent 12 days in Florida. Five players returned to Nashville to take part in graduation before flying back for the tournament.

“Some people could think of that as a nightmare,” Ryman says. “For us, earlier this season, it would have been a nightmare. But this team has grown so close through the year that it was fine.

“We would find them playing games together in the hotel lobby or watching movies together. There was just so much difference in this team later in the season that it ended up being such a neat thing.”

Lipscomb’s opening game of the ASUN tournament went 12 innings and required two days to complete because of weather delays.

Lady Bisons players celebrate a win earlier this season.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Lipscomb Athletics

Tied 0-0 in the bottom of the 12th inning against North Alabama, the teams were sent back to their hotels for the night. Lipscomb had a runner on second base with two outs and Higgins at the plate facing a 3-2 count.

The Lady Bisons had to sleep on that scenario before returning to the field the following morning.

It only took one pitch to finish the game, with Higgins stroking an RBI to left field for a 1-0 victory.

“It was unreal. It was like an epic-type moment. It was such a cool scene,” Ryman recalls. “You would have thought we won the championship right there. We were that excited, and rightfully so. That game meant everything to us to stay in the winner’s bracket.”

Lipscomb completed its NCAA-clinching title run with victories against Liberty and North Florida.

Megan Gray pitched a shutout against Liberty to give senior ace Mandy Jordan a much-needed rest.

The Lady Bisons executed squeeze bunts and sacrifice flies. They drew walks, hit home runs and made sterling defensive plays.

“It was neat honestly to see it all come together,” Ryman says. “It was a different person every time. Somebody else was finding a way to step into the spotlight and we all got it done as a team.”

Down to their last chance to reach the NCAA tournament before their college careers ended, Lipscomb’s seniors savored the moment. They reminded junior Peyton Ward about a text message she sent to appropriately named senior Destinee Brewer on Aug. 1 that forecast the team’s fate.

“It said, ‘we are winning a championship this year,’ and then it happened,” Higgins says. “There was something special about this team, and we could feel it before the season even started. We knew we were going to do it this year. We had our sights set on this from August, and it really carried us through.”

Ryman has enjoyed watching the maturation process of this season’s team. Although the Lady Bisons have several seasoned veterans, she knew it wouldn’t automatically equate to success.

Finding the team’s identity would require patience, a good book and some insightful discussions.

“I am just so proud of this group of girls and just so pumped for them to get this NCAA regional experience,” Ryman adds. “Not only do they work hard, but they truly buy in and play for each other. I am excited they get the chance to have this opportunity because they earned it.”