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David Boyce | | April 25, 2016

DII notebook: Team-first mindset leads Arkansas Tech softball to record-breaking season

  Arkansas Tech pitch Jalissa Gum has helped her team go 44-7 this season.

Three years ago, Jalissa Gum arrived at Arkansas Tech as a star pitcher out of Oklahoma. Arkansas Tech coach Kristina McSweeney decided to primarily play Gum at shortstop.

In her sophomore season, Gum didn’t pitch at all, instead playing shortstop, second base and some first base. Her batting average jumped from .260 to .290 her sophomore year. Gum showed she put the team ahead of herself.

Because other Golden Suns players also bought into McSweeney’s selfless team concept, Arkansas Tech went from 31 wins in 2014 to 41 in 2015, just one victory shy of tying the school record for most wins in a season.  

“Basically, the mindset of 'get rid of your ego, swallow your pride and find a way to help us or find a way to get out,'” McSweeney said. “We had too many people worried about what their ERA is and what their stats are. Nobody cares about that at the end of the day. They care about Ws and Ls.

“Also, I wanted to get them to buy in that this year may not be your year. Look at Jalissa. You may not pitch this year, but you are going to help us at short.”

During the 2016 season, Gum, now a junior, is a glowing example of the fruits that come from putting the team first and playing the role the coach has for her. Gum is excelling on the mound and at the plate. On the mound, she is 18-1 with a 0.67 ERA with 185 strikeouts in 125.2 innings. She has gone 38.1 innings without allowing an earned run.

“I’m not surprised by her success by any means because I knew what she could bring to the table when she was able to help us out on the mound,” McSweeney said. “She has been a staple in our lineup and the anchor of our pitching staff.

“It is also true that hard work has gotten her to this point.”

At the plate, Gum is batting .399 with a team-leading 10 home runs and 45 RBIs.

“I do enjoy both and it is nice to do both,” Gum said. “I want to be part of both. I want to be able to help not only myself get the win when I am hitting, but I also want to be in control when I am pitching. If they get a hit, that is on me.”

As gaudy as Gum’s statistics are, the reason Arkansas Tech established a new record in wins over the weekend by taking three of four from Northwestern Oklahoma and claiming the conference regular-season title is because McSweeney has put together a team in which everybody contributes in some form.

“I think a lot of it has to do with more and more people buying into the concept of what she has for us,” Gum said. “It is more about the team than it is about themselves. We figured out it doesn’t take one person to get there; it takes everyone.”

And that is one reason why Arkansas Tech heads into the Great American Conference Softball Championships, Thursday through Saturday in Bentonville, Arkansas, with a 44-7 overall record and 34-6 in conference. Perhaps the most impressive part about the record is 22-0 in road games.

“Honestly, I think we perform well on the road because I see them all,” McSweeney said with a laugh. “To be frank, when I take this team on the road, I think our focus is better. There are not as many distractions.

“Obviously, being around the team and doing well and only having softball to worry about have helped tremendously. There is really not a secret to how we have played so well on the road.”

It certainly helps to have a talented pitching staff. McSweeney doesn’t have to rely on just Gum when going into a four-game series. Sophomore Morgan Vaughan is 14-1 with a 2.15 ERA and 92 strikeouts. Senior Kelsie Barker is 7-2 with four saves and junior Sydnee Clark is another reliable option. She won 12 games last year.

“I think it is absolutely a benefit,” McSweeney said. “I think the difference between my team and most is I have two pitchers who can win at any moment and I have one who can come in and shut the door in Kelsie Barker. Sydnee Clark, who hasn’t pitched as much this year, but she can still come in.

“I changed my philosophy when I got to Division II and I realized you cannot really win with two pitchers. You need to have more than that. I also think that is why Jalissa and Morgan have been so successful because there isn’t that ultimate pressure on each pitcher.”

Offensively, the Golden Suns are batting .324 as a team. Leading the way is sophomore Alex Edinger, who is batting .410. She is second on the team in stolen bases with 13, one behind team leader, freshman Sarah Coronado.

Overall, Arkansas Tech has stolen 60 bases in 73 attempts, well ahead of their opponents. Arkansas Tech has allowed only 18 stolen bases in 29 attempts. The stolen bases point to the team speed that McSweeney likes about this year’s group. Last year the Golden Suns relied more on the home run.

“We have players who can put the ball in the gap and can stretch a single into a double,” McSweeney said. “That has been the difference between this year and teams I have had in the past, the ability to run the bases. Eight of our nine can absolutely run at any moment. Being able to do that changes the whole game. You can do anything when you are fast. That to me is the key to our offensive approach. Everybody can run.”

Arkansas Tech enters the portion of the season where every game is important. Arkansas Tech wants to win the conference tournament and try to secure the No. 1 seed in the Central Region.

The softball selection show is Monday, May 2, 10 a.m. ET.

The regional tournaments are in early May and the winners head to Denver, Colorado, for the softball championships May 17-21 as part of the NCAA Division II National Championship Festival.

It is an exciting time for teams that have put themselves in position to make a run at a national title. But it is dangerous to look too far ahead.

“They sneak peek ahead,” McSweeney said. “They don’t live in the future, but they like to hear about the future. They are very goal oriented. When we accomplish one goal, we move on to the next goal. Having small goals is the only way to keep them focused.”

A look at the defending national champions

North Georgia softball team entered the 2016 season with the most difficult task in Division II and that was to repeat last year. North Georgia carried the burden of having the bullseye on them in every game it played.

The Nighthawks have handled the pressure well. They head into the Southeast Region tournament May 5-7 with a 50-6 record. They finished 23-1 in the Peach Belt Conference and then won all three games in the conference tournament by a combined score of 22-3.

North Georgia has a hitter flirting with .500. Junior Stephanie Hartness is batting .481 with nine home runs and 51 RBIs. She has started all 56 games.

The pitching staff is led by senior Courtney Poole, who is 49-2 with a 0.64 ERA and 406 strikeouts in 336.2 innings.

A look at the No. 1 ranked team

West Texas A&M went into this week’s games as the No. 1 ranked team in the NFCA coaches top 25. The Lady Buffs pushed their winning streak to 14 straight games after winning four games against Texas Women’s, pulling out two games in extra innings.

West Texas A&M is 50-2 overall and currently ranked No. 1 in the South Central Region. The Lady Buffs will compete in the Lone Star Conference Softball Championships April 29-30 at Schaeffer Park in Canyon, Texas.

Offensively, the Lady Buffs is led by sophomore Ashley Hardin, who is hitting .386 with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs. Freshman Brittany Cruz has belted 13 home runs and also has 61 RBIs while batting .361.

Sophomore Kilee Halbert leads the pitching staff with a 21-1 record with 110 strikeouts in 136.2 innings