Head coach Phil Berry has taken the Harding softball program a long way in a short time. Since reinventing the program in 2014, the Lady Bisons seemingly rewrite their history books every week.
Berry came to Harding in 2014, tasked with getting a program back on its feet after it disappeared following the 1985 season. They did remarkably well in their first season, finishing over .500, but took a step back in their sophomore campaign.
Last season, Harding took another big step forward. They reached the Great American Conference finals, falling one game short of advancing to their first NCAA postseason.
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Flash forward to 2017 and the Harding Lady Bisons are 38-4, ranked No. 4 in the country. That's mainly due to a senior class that has -- for the large part -- all grown together as starters since their freshman season. Kimmy Campbell, Courtney Derrick, Amanda Berdon, Mackenzie Jones, and Brookelynn Moon have experienced the highs and the lows of what a new program has to offer.
"It's been a very fun experience being a part of the start of a program," senior catcher Campbell said. "Our freshman year there were only two girls who had played college ball before, so we always used the term that we had to "grow up fast." All of that took a lot of hard work and it's been amazing to see where that has taken us. We went through the growing pains of having to figure it out together and I believe not only did it make us stronger individually but also as a unit."Last season, pitcher Hannah Johnson transfered from Itawamba Community College. She has since been the difference maker in the circle the Lady Bisons needed. She has gone a remarkable 39-12 -- including an 18-2 record in 2017 -- since joining Harding, accounting for 52 percent of the team's wins the past two seasons.
Johnson knows that a large part of her success stems from her battery mate.
"Kimmy catching me for the past two years has been nothing but a blessing," Johnson said. "We can talk through hitters or tough situations. I trust her to make correct judgement calls. She understands me and tells me when I need to slow down and take a deep breath and just go at the batter. She is a great leader on and off the field and I couldn't ask for a better catcher."
"It's great having people in the circle that you know will give their best each and every pitch," Campell added. "What's even better about it is they know we are all doing the same when we step in the box as well. We all have each other's back no matter the circumstances and that gives confidence all the way around."These seniors are motivated by several factors. The most prominent is this is their last chance to take this program to heights they never envisioned as freshman. They are also motivated by last season's end, which came prematurely at the hands of Great American Conference powerhouse Southern Arkansas. This weekend's rematch could be the DII series of the weekend with two top-10 teams battling for GAC supremacy.
"Ending the way we did last year made me want to work that much harder to get back to where we were and go even farther," Johnson said. "I feel like last year we surprised a bunch of people by making it that far and this year I want them to remember who Harding is. I didn't feel statisfied at the end of last year and knew that we could do even bigger things.
"I think at the beginning of the year we set very high expectations for ourselves because we knew what we were capable of. We take it a game at a time and do not get ahead of ourselves because on any given day someone can be beat. Personally I just want to give my team the best that I have in my last season."
As seniors, they have also been able to see the new crop develop that will carry on their legacy for years to come. Freshman sensations like Lindsey Duncan and Autumn Humes have been key parts to the Lady Bisons success. Humes in particular has been phenomenal as one of the best two-way players in DII. She is batting .338 with six home runs, while going 19-1 with a 1.66 ERA and nine shutouts, third best in DII.
Go vote for @Harding_SB player Autumn Humes for @HEROSportsSB Best Freshman Pitcher #HUBisonshttps://t.co/tFnI06NhSU pic.twitter.com/aPsn9OJPrn— Harding Sports (@HardingSports) April 11, 2017
"Having Autumn behind me makes me relax," Johnson said. "I don't put as much pressure on myself. I know that she is going to take care of her game."
The seniors have set the mark very high for the next wave of Lady Bisons. Campbell will leave the school as the most prolific run producer in the program's brief history, No. 1 in both runs driven in and scored. Derrick set the table consistently from the top of the order, and will leave the program with more hits and stolen bases than anyone else. Moon set the mark for doubles, while Berdon set the all-time home run mark. No one has been a better fielder than Jones, while Johnson will leave the school with just about every pitching record in the book.
But it was never about stats for these graduating Lady Bisons. It was more than that.
"I would describe my time here by one word," Campbell said. "Foundation. We have worked hard in order to build a solid foundation that not only has allowed us to experience success but has paved the way for more and greater success for this program in the future."
Harding has accomplished so much this season. They set their mark for most wins, behind a 27-game winning streak. They've set the mark for the highest ranking the new Lady Bisons have acheived, even garnering what is believed the first first place vote a Harding program has ever received this past week.
Now, there is just one goal left before they ride of into the sunset.
"I think if we made it to the NCAAs it would just be a testament to how hard we have worked to get to where we are today," Johnson said. "I couldn't think of a more deserving group of girls."