AC News Service
LUFKIN, TX (Press Release)- Flash back to May of 2015. The Angelina College Lady Roadrunner softball team entered the conference tournament hoping for a chance to defend its 2014 national title. Virtually the same lineup was in place from the title run, so hopes ran high for a return trip to Utah.
Then a problem arose that hadn't bothered the team at all the year before: The injury bug hit at the worst possible time.
During the tournament, AC fielded a team riddled with injuries. The team's leading home run hitter played with a walking cast. The team's RBI leader played with a broken bone in her hand. The starting shortstop, who hadn't missed a game in two years, missed a crucial tournament game. The team's best pitchers each played through pain, as did many of the other players.
AC's valiant run ended short, but the memory of what might have been lingered into the off-season. Coaches Mark and Barbi Mattson took it to heart and on the recruiting trail, and the 2016 roster is testament to the team's commitment to both versatility and depth.
"Those injuries absolutely 100 percent had everything to do with the way we recruited," Mark Mattson said during Wednesday's practice. "Last year, when someone went down we struggled to replace them. That ate at us all season, and Barbi and I in the off-season were adamant about signing kids who can play multiple positions. Of course we want kids who can bang the ball, but we wanted depth, and we got it. This is probably the deepest team I've had in 18 years of coaching."
So versatile are those players that the just-released roster doesn't include positions; Barbi Mattson joked one might as well list every player as a "utility" player.
Moreover, there are no returning players on this year's version of Lady Roadrunners. They're all new, and all are expected to contribute. Mark Mattson said one focus was ensuring the team has a stable of pitchers, and with Taylor Odom, Whitney Howerton, Elizabeth Craig – "The first lefty I've had here," Mattson said – and Shannon Stoker.
"Each of those pitchers has different styles, so we're thinking we can pose some problems for the other teams' hitters," Mattson said.
The coaches agreed that if they had to fill out a list of starters today, the page might still be blank.
"I still don't know what the lineup will be, and probably won't until each game day," Mattson said. "Some people have stood out a ton, and watching them hit I'll know they'll be out there.
"What we'll probably do for a while is go back and forth and give the players plenty of opportunities, especially at the beginning of the year," Mattson said. "We want to win every game, but I really feel confident that I could play 16 or 17 different people and still not lose a beat."
The infield and outfield may also see some shuffling even as games progress. Mattson said he has some exceptional fielders who may not be as strong at the plate and vice versa; he and Barbi will have the luxury of late substitutions – something Mark said will be strange to him.
"This will give all our players a chance to contribute in some way or another, and give them the experience they need as we go. We're going to need all of them if we want to get where we want to be as a team."
With that many players, many of whom have always been starters on their respective high school teams, the challenge becomes holding everyone together throughout the season's grind.
"This team is super tight," Mattson said. "They get along so well, and while they're all really good and all want to play, I know they'll support each other while waiting their turn.
"We've talked to them about it, and we'll have to see how they react the first time we post a starting lineup. It's going to be different, but I think we have the right kinds of kids to make it all work."
Mattson said the team still needs to work on communication, a common issue among those playing together for the first time.
"We had the same middle infield for two years, and they knew each other's abilities very well," Mattson said. "They went after every ball, and they knew who could reach it.
"With a new team, we'll have to learn that as we go. We have an exceptionally fast outfield, and they'll get to a lot of balls."
All the pitching and defense will be great, but the hallmark of these Mattson-led teams is high-powered, hard-hitting offense. The 2014 and 2015 teams established and broke the program's home run records, and Mattson said this year's group has the ability to top those marks. During Wednesday's batting practice session, just about every third ball put in play cleared the fence.
"The work these girls put in during the fall is really showing up now," Mattson said. "They're banging balls out of the park like crazy, and we have speed on the bases to go with the power.
"I feel really, really good about this team and what they can do this year."
The Lady Roadrunners open the season on Friday as guest at the Coastal Bend Tournament in Beeville. On Friday, AC plays Laredo at 2 p.m. and Coastal Bend at 4:30 p.m. Both of those games take place at A.C. Jones High School in Beeville.
On Saturday, the Lady 'Runners take on Midland at 9 a.m. at Cougar Field; and Houston Tillotson at 11:30 a.m. at A.C. Jones High School.
AC's ladies will host their home opener on Wednesday, Feb. 3 against Temple College. The doubleheader starts at 2 p.m.