Jackrabbit softball has had its share of highs and lows this season, but the team’s success isn’t necessarily determined by wins and losses – at least not this year.
Perhaps more important is the installation of a new mindset by first-year Head Coach Krista Wood.
While spending eight seasons as the coach at Wayne (Neb.) State College, Wood transformed the program into a winner. The Wildcats were 10-34 in 2006, the year before Wood arrived. They went 28-22 in her first year and posted winning records in every season she coached there – including a school record 43-13 in 2010.
With eight successful seasons at Wayne State, one might wonder, why leave it all behind?
“It was a great opportunity for me and for my family,” Wood said of the move to South Dakota State. “I love the town of Brookings and any time you can move from Division II to Division I, it is a new challenge. I did it at the Division II level, rebuilding a program, and I know how it works. It takes time and a lot of hard work.”
This mindset may be exactly what the Jacks need after experiencing tough seasons in the past. The Jacks were 11-36 last year and have posted only three winning seasons in the past 20 years. SDSU’s last winning season: 2005.
The Jacks have had a wild year so far, from big wins to tough losses and everything in between. There have been games canceled by weather and numerous drama-filled games that have come down to the final innings.
“It’s been a rollercoaster of a year,” Wood said. “We’ve beat some really good teams and we’ve lost to some teams that we shouldn’t have lost to. I expect a lot from this team. I don’t care what their record was last year – every time we step on the field I expect to win. Instilling that winning mentality into our players is just going to take time.”
Wood has recognized the previous struggles and understands that a winning mentality is new to the players, but she also expects more from those players because she believes they are capable of winning. Senior infielder Elyse Eitel has seen her share of coaching changes during her career with the Jacks, so Wood’s message of winning and teamwork are a welcome change.
“I’ve always known what it takes to be successful,” Eitel said. “Coach Wood really brought these mindsets out of us.”
Eitel is batting .358 with a slugging percentage of .516. She has 20 RBIs and one home run.
“I’ve noticed this year that I haven’t hit home runs and I’m fine with that,” Eitel said. “It’s not about the bombs, it’s about the consistency and creating momentum for the rest of my teammates to get on a hitting roll.”
It is that team-first mentality that Wood has brought. Even though the team has racked up more wins this year, often the win-loss column doesn’t measure a team’s effort.
“Sure we do have a losing record now, but if you come watch us play, you’ll see we are better than what our record shows,” Wood said. “We’ve lost some really close ballgames. We’ve lost two [games] in extra innings and a few by one or two runs. As far as I’m concerned, I think we‘re playing a lot better than what (our girls) played last year at this time.”
A recent doubleheader against Creighton is just one example. SDSU fought its way back to win the first game with a last-inning hit that led to two RBIs and a final score of 7-6. But the Jacks ran out of juice and lost in the nightcap 9-0.
The team’s drive for success isn’t based solely on Wood’s mentality. Players had to buy in and build on it with hard work.
Junior infielder Devan Larson said that at first, Wood was intimidating. Over time, however, the team adopted her philosophy. Larson, who set a new school record of home runs in a season from 11 to 14 home runs, is thankful for the extra effort put in by the coaching staff.
“[The coaches] have all taken extra time out of their days to pitch to me outside of practice whenever I start to get frustrated at the plate,” Larson said. “No matter what, I know they never give up on me and the rest of the team.”
It is this kind of effort – by players and the coaching staff – that is slowly changing SDSU softball. Wood has created a new philosophy that has brought the team together and put them on a path to become winners. At least that’s the plan.
“Coach Wood and the rest of the coaching staff really cares about us and have helped everyone change our mentality from being O.K. with losing, to wanting to win more than anything out there,” Larson said.
With this being Wood’s first year at the Division I level, there were a lot of unknowns. But that is part of the challenge of turning a program around. It will take time and hard work, but the process has begun.
“There is a difference between Division I and Division II,” Wood said. “I didn’t have a lot of expectations coming in because I didn’t know what to expect. But now that I have coached three-fourths of a season at the Division I level, I totally think that with the kids we have and the kids we’re bringing in, we will be successful in the coming years. There’s no question about it, we will be able to compete with teams.”