The softball Lady Flames of Lee University have let a little irritation become an inspiration.
Lee goes into the 10-team NAIA championship tournament in Columbus, Ga., in its last try before moving to NCAA Division II and the Gulf South Conference, and the Lady Flames are 47-9 and seeded third. They lead the NAIA with a .385 team batting average and 11 hits per game.
The Cleveland school is coming off a sweep through a four-team opening series it hosted and had 23 hits in the series final, and the team is healthy as well as confident, according to coach Emily Russell.
Last year the NAIA champion was Lee rival Shorter University, which finished behind the Lady Flames in the Southern States Athletic Conference but put everything together in its last NAIA go-round before heading to -- yes, Division II and the GSC.
"I think our girls were happy for Shorter. We wished it had been us, of course, but that showed how tough our conference is," Russell said, "and also it showed that if they can win it all, we can too. I think we've taken inspiration from that, and I think this team is really focused on trying to win the championship on our way out.
"But it's going to be a very tough tournament."
Lee opens tonight at 7:30 against sixth seed Williams Baptist of Arkansas. Eighth seed Reinhardt with ace Maddie Monroe from Calhoun (Ga.) High School faces No. 9 St. Xavier at 1 p.m.
Russell likes the new final-10, double-elimination format replacing pool play leading into single elimination, and she thinks her team is more flexible and adaptable than any in the Lady Flames' past. This is her 11th season as the program's head coach after two years pitching for Lee and two as an assistant coach.
"We've had some teams with stronger aspects and more talented individual players," she said Thursday, "but this team has more depth than we've ever had, and we have more team speed than we've ever had. And we usually have six or even seven left-handed batters in the lineup. That gets pitchers out of their comfort zone."
That allows the Lady Flames "to do different things" depending on the opposition. They still have batters with power, but even against dominant pitchers they can scratch out runs with one or two hits, Russell pointed out.
Sophomore left fielder Dominique Hannah bats leadoff and leads the team with a .484 average, 21 doubles, four triples and 62 runs scored, and she's tied with senior designated player Charlie Wooden for the team high of nine homers. Hannah's 55 RBIs are behind only junior first baseman Ana Coscorrosa, who has eight homers with a .469 average.
"Coach [Jeff] Martin said Superman wears Dominique pajamas," Russell said. "She's so clutch. She's unflappable."
Laurel Allen is batting .474, and Amanda Lynn, Wooden, Savanna Bell, Lexie Dean, Jennifer Ringle, Lizzie Stevens, Dezirae Parsons, Meghan Macias and Jenevieve Cena are hitting .393, .358, .347, .345, .340, .333, .327, .321 and .318.
The team has seven seniors, including four-year starters in outfielder Bell and Wooden and junior college transfers Ringle and Parsons on the left side of the infield, but young players have been important also. When Ringle was out three weeks with a hamstring problem at a crucial time of the season, freshman Lynn moved to shortstop from second base and classmate Stevens replaced her at second.
The top two pitchers are freshmen as well, Angie Hughes and Caroline MacAusland with 120 innings apiece and 17-2 and 16-4 won-lost records. Senior Katie Deems is 8-1 and sophomore Jessa Watts is 6-2.
Contact Ron Bush at email@example.com or 423-757-6291.