If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You’ve heard that countless times, and it’s great advice. The trick is knowing when something is about to break and fixing it before it’s too late.
A&M softball coach Jo Evans is hopeful revamping her staff will help the program overcome a rocky 12 months. She could have changed nothing, counting on the Aggies winning 40 games and reaching the super regionals next season, proving nothing was broken. That would render this season a simple off year, much like 2001 when A&M last missed the NCAA tournament or 2009 when it the Aggies went 33-22 and ended the season by losing to Lehigh.
But what if Evans did nothing and A&M had another so-so season? A&M hasn’t finished unranked in back-to-back seasons since 2000-01.
Evans couldn’t afford to do nothing. The losses hurt, but what hurt most was fans wondering how many of the Aggies’ 27 losses would have been wins if they hadn’t lost so many players. Few teams have three returning starters transfer and a fourth quit the sport. Instead of losing players, A&M should have had great ones transferring in last offseason considering A&M came within a pitch of returning to the Women’s College World Series and was about to play its first full season in $28.6 million Davis Diamond, a place opposing coaches and players raved about.
What happened to A&M is unheard of and probably won’t be duplicated. Yet anyone who closely followed the program wasn’t shocked by the offseason attrition.
Pitcher/designated hitter Samantha Show, the centerpiece in the 2016 freshman class which reached the finals of the Lafayette Regional, had an up-and-down season. She had a .290 batting average but only four homers and 25 RBIs. In the circle, she went 12-5 with a 2.25 earned run average, again nice numbers, but Trinity Harrington became the ace and even Payton McBride (3-0, 1.89 ERA) and Lexi Smith (10-2, 1.66 ERA) pitched better down the stretch than Show. The coaching staff seemed to lose confidence in Show and she in them, so she transferred to Oklahoma State.
Show showed this season why players should be allowed to transfer. She had an All-America year both in the circle and at the plate in leading the Cowgirls to the WCWS.
The casual Aggie fan had a tough time watching her in super regionals and the WCWS, but odds are she’d have never been that good had she stayed at A&M. Show admitted in interviews leading up to the WCWS that she can be tough for coaches and teammates to deal with. But she also is very talented.
Show became a legend in Stillwater, Oklahoma, while former A&M outfielders Keeli Milligan and Sarah Hudek helped Louisiana-Lafayette come within two outs of winning the Oxford Regional.
As a freshman at A&M, Milligan batted .379 and stole a school-record 54 bases. But she batted only .313 over her last two seasons at A&M with a combined 51 stolen bases. She’d lost a step, especially in her sophomore season, and she also proved the adage that you can’t steal first base as she struck out 55 times in her last 307 at-bats. Milligan more or less had lost her starting job to Kelbi Fortenberry (.331, 11 RBIs) by last season’s end.
So like Show, the alienated Milligan bolted for greener pastures. With good friend Hudek not far behind, they reunited with former A&M hitting coach Gerry Glasco in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Many forget Hudek is a rare five-tool softball player, who led A&M team in hitting (.366) in 2018 and had eight homers and 33 RBIs while playing superb defense.
A&M’s defense suffered another blow when second baseman Kaitlyn Alderink opted to quit softball and focus on academics. The Aggies missed the three-year starter both on defense and at the plate, finishing this season with a .970 team fielding percentage and .270 batting average.
It’s easy to say A&M would have been better had all four players returned this season, but they all wanted out. Along with their exit, A&M lost four senior position starters and two senior pitchers.
Everyone knew the Aggies were going to struggle this season, but those struggles were magnified by Hudek, Milligan and Show all having success. While A&M was losing 27 games, Oklahoma State and Louisiana-Lafayette combined to go 97-23.
The season had a bitter ending, despite A&M extending its school record of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances to 18. The Aggies lost 3-2 to Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference tournament and dropped back-to-back nailbiters in the NCAA Austin Regional to Houston 3-1 and Texas 3-2 in eight innings. The Aggies couldn’t hit a lick in the postseason, and the three losses gave them 27 games in which they scored three or less runs this season.
But the pitchers, who became a bright spot midway through SEC play, allowed only 30 runs in the last 10 games.
It wasn’t that far-fetched to think that with just a little bit of luck the Aggies could have won the Austin Regional. Yeah, it’s a bit of a reach, but for a team that had little to celebrate, it was a good thought to end the season. A 12-month spiral that started with A&M unable to get the final out in the Gainesville Super Regional was finally over, so it seemed.
The worst was over, but less than two weeks later, freshman infielder Baylee Klingler announced she was transferring. That just didn’t add up. Klingler pledged to A&M before she even entered high school. Klingler and catcher Haley Lee were the foundation of the future. This year’s freshman class, despite the tough first season, eventually would help make A&M fans forget all those players who had transferred. The last thing A&M needed this offseason was to have a key player transfer.
Something had to change, which Evans knew and had put a plan in motion. She didn’t become a hall of fame coach with 1,220 victories without making tough choices. She had to revamp her staff, though it was an admission previous decisions had failed. That’s tough, and it’s even tougher when changes involve friends.
Hitting coach Keith Stein, the former A&M Consolidated standout, was the right guy for the right job, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. The game’s greatest hitting coach would have failed with this year’s team, which returned just one starter. It was a recipe for what exactly transpired.
A&M’s offense has been slipping since 2016 when it batted .328 and averaged 7.3 runs a game — one of five school records set that season including on-base percentage and runs batted in. A&M had six .300 hitters with the top five all having what proved to be career-best seasons. Glasco, in his first season at A&M, looked like the Pied Piper until the following season when the team’s batting average dropped 30 points and A&M scored 85 less runs and hit 26 less homers despite having eight returning starters.
But the pitching improved almost two runs per game in 2017 as the Aggies advanced to the WCWS, so all was well.
A&M’s team batting average dropped only two points in Stein’s first season in 2018, but other key offensive numbers had significant drops. Still, the pitching remained strong as the Aggies went 44-18 overall, including 13-11 in the SEC for the program’s second straight winning season in the country’s best league. All remained well.
It unraveled quickly after Jordan Matthews’ three-run homer gave Florida a 5-3 walk-off victory in the super regionals.
In less than a year, the Aggies went from nearly playing in the WCWS to finishing last in the 13-team SEC with the program’s worst league record since joining the Big 12 Conference in 1996.
The offense has to get better, and that’ll happen if the Aggies can keep their best hitters. But A&M also has to do a better job developing pitchers. Mel Dumezich (2010-13) was the last high school pitcher to come to A&M and pitch like an ace for four years.
Evans is counting on former Florida State hitting coach Craig Snider molding the young hitters. The Seminoles posted impressive numbers during Snider’s eight seasons with the program. He’s also regarded as an excellent recruiter, though signing good players hasn’t been a problem at A&M. Failure to develop and keep them, though, has the program at a crossroads.
Evans is hopeful she has hit the problem straight on.