I do not know my capability of talking about college softball, but I will take a shot at it here.
I have learned a bit about college softball over the last few years, I did after all marry into it. The sport though has grown in popularity over the last decade, partially because of more exposure from ESPN, who tends to go on lazy mode from the NFL Draft to the NFL training camp. When the NBA dwindles down in games from the playoffs, and MLB is not in crunch time, college softball (and baseball) gets its shot on national television stage. More respect has been given to the softball athletes with segments being posted about how it is actually more difficult to hit an incoming softball pitch versus a baseball pitch, and other stuff. It has become more than just a Hey, That School Needs That For Title 9 thing, so for UNO going division one, and having softball as probably their most successful female sport, it is a great thing for the athletic program.
Anyway, here is a little background on my wife: She grew up in Washington state, played on travel softball teams with girls that went on to play at Arizona, Alabama, UCLA, Washington, Oregon State, Louisiana Tech, and others, some even went on to team USA. She played middle infield for much of her softball career, except for one travel team where she was moved to the outfield, but there was a future Olympian at shortstop, so she was cool with it. She valued her education more than sports, so she picked Belmont, a private university, over the likes of Kentucky, Columbia, and other various schools, oh and my wife also picked Belmont over Creighton. She often claims that her first coach in college at Belmont was “a dumb ass.” My wife has A LOT of speed, and her college coach tried to make her a slapper, but my wife claimed she did not see the ball as well as a slapper. She wanted to hit away, but was not given too many opportunities to do so under that coach.
Finally that coach was let go, and Amy Tudor became her head coach. You may know Tudor as the former coach of IPFW, who had the program in really good shape but had difficulty getting over North Dakota State, and she is now the head coach of Western Kentucky who has picked up wins over Nebraska and Tennessee so far this season. She took five players from IPFW with her and now the Mastadons are 0-23 so far this season. Anyway, at first, Tudor wanted to keep my wife as a slapper, but halfway through my wife’s junior season, she started to let her hit away and still tried to utilize her as a slapper a bit, but my wife started to take off and raised her hitting average by 30 percentage points.
Tudor brought new life to my wife’s college career, she won conference player of the week awards, became an All Academic player, and was chosen as the team captain. My wife needed the new spark, you see picking the education over a big name program came at a small price. The players on her team were not strongly committed to softball, and Nashville (and the south in general) is filled with a different type of casual female that is only going to college so they can meet their future husband and become a stay at home wife. The older players would discourage my wife for “caring too much” or being “too competitive,” and make other degrading remarks, trying to get her to not try as hard, and fit in with them and not be as good. They were like The Joker trying to bring Harvey Dent down to his and Batman’s level. Something my wife was not used to with growing up with highly competitive softball players, she did not understand how someone could call themselves a division one athlete and not be competitive. Even though my wife had a softball team around her, she felt completely isolated and alone while she was at Belmont. It is not like my wife hated or was hated by every single one of her teammates, there were some girls that tried and were competitive and some that she became great friends with and still maintains close friendships with. My wife at one point was in talks to transfer to some better programs, but Tudor came in and convinced her to stay, and at the end of the day Belmont was providing a fantastic education, and my wife wanted to think big picture. My wife’s senior year was the best year that Belmont ever had in softball, from a wins standpoint. Tudor would later have my wife as a volunteer assistant for one season at Belmont, and later highly recommended that she apply to be her assistant coach at IPFW, which was incredibly difficult for my wife to pass up. Do not worry, I would have never loved IPFW as if it were my own. Tudor provided some support for my wife’s college experience, something she did not necessarily have a lot of in her first two years. My wife also now coaches high school, just as a FYI. My wife watches every single Women’s College World Series game every single year, no matter how late the games go and no matter how early she has stuff to do in the morning. She watches every moment.
How does any of this relate to Allie Mathewson and UNO softball? Okay, part of that is to provide a frame of reference that it is not like I just thought, hey what the hell I will try to take up talking about softball for shits, but that I have grown to love the sport through the passion that my wife has for softball.
So one day I am looking in the Omaha World Herald, and I read an article to my wife about how a Creighton player is transferring to UNO. Oh neat! At the time I did not know a bunch about softball, just that my wife is far superior than me at it, but I was recognizing that Creighton was a better softball program at the time as far as division one history goes, I mean, it was after just one division one season from UNO. So for UNO to get a transfer from a slightly better program, was probably a big deal given their status at the time. My wife told me that Jeanne Scarpello is a quality coach, she has the tools and knowledge to build a successful program at the division one level. Before Tudor left IPFW, my wife was certain that North Dakota State, IPFW, and UNO were going to make for a very competitive threesome in the Summit League tournament in the future.
My wife is eventually asked to teach Softball Coaching Theories at UNO, and guess who is in one of her first classes… My wife comes to respect Mathewson as a student, learns more and more about her as a player too, my wife recognizes her as a leader as well. The World Herald comes out with a few more Mathewson articles over time, but there was one that caught our eyes, why she left Creighton, mostly on how the girls at Creighton were not committed to softball, did not take it seriously, basically took all the fun out of it for her, and how she felt isolated and alone. It is possible I have that wrong, I could not find the particular article again as a reference for the specifics. I think this literally brought my wife to pain, it sounded incredibly similar to her experience at Belmont, and from the sounds of it, Mathewson got out of the situation for a much better experience at UNO, my wife could feel Mathewson’s pain, and it was difficult for my wife to get through the article as it brought back her memories, and she felt completely happy for Mathewson and believed Mathewson made the right decision. After getting to know Mathewson better from a teacher-student standpoint, my wife was happy that Mathewson could find that support from the UNO program.
My wife and I went to attend Nebraska at UNO softball in the 2014 season. It was cold and super windy, but there was over 400 people in attendance. Sure most of them are there to see Nebraska softball, but people wanted to see what Mathewson, Campbell Ditto, and Amber Lutmer and the rest of the Mavs could do against the Husker ace Tatum Edwards, but none of them had great luck against Edwards that day, I remember a lot of first pitch swings from the Mavs. The Mavs only had one hit, and the Huskers figured out Dana Elsasser as the game went on.
When watching softball with my wife, the coach in her has a lot of “what were you thinking there”, “why swing at the pitch”, “the infielder did not go after that ball correctly,” she also recognizes the great plays and says things like “way to go getting that ball”, “that is a tough pitch to lay off of, get after it next time.” When watching UNO events that have her students playing my wife turns into a defensive soccer mom, “how dare the opposing player do something bad toward (student’s name)”, and her student can usually do no wrong in her eyes. Granted, this has mostly been in Hockey where she knows less about the sport, so when she sees someone try to fight her student, she pretty much stands up and gets in a defensive stance, like if the refs do not stop the fight, she will. So with Mathewson, I was curious if my wife the coach or if my wife the teacher/soccer mom would come out.
Mathewson steps up the box, and this is instantly where things got interesting. The crowd would shout to Husker players that batted in the top of the inning against Elsasser, positive and negative things, but no one talked for Mathewson’s first at bat, it was like everyone was giving respect to a golfer trying to focus in. They all read the World Herald stories, they all have an idea what Mathewson has gone through, and they all know of her .365 batting average. My wife even quietly says “oh, she has the same batting stance as me.” Her teammates go after her and the volume starts back up, people carrying on their casual conversation and cheers, but still paying attention to the game, young softball girls there to cheer on both the Mavericks and Huskers. Mathewson’s second at bat, the young softball girls that had seemed to lose a little interest in the game because of the weather tell each other to “shut up, Allie is up to bat!” Through the transition, has there been a player in any sport where the young kids would tell each other to shut up and watch?
I am still not sure if the coach or the teacher came out in my wife when Mathewson was up to bat. When Mathewson came up to bat or would track down a ball in the outfield for an out, my wife just said nothing. I think it was just respect, the coach in her had no critique. The teacher in her had the trust and confidence that she could handle herself.
Is Mathewson the best college softball player in the state of Nebraska? Maybe, maybe not, Liz Dike of Creighton is hitting .484 over 20 games so far…holy crap. And Kiki Stokes, Alicia Armstrong, and a few more Huskers are having solid years so far. With no Tatum Edwards, and basically Creighton fans not caring about sports after basketball season (they care when the CWS starts, because you know, their season tickets they never use become useful for once), Mathewson is definitely the most talked about college softball player in the state this season. For a transitioning program to have a player like that, is kind of a big deal. Her story is unique and she is a player people that know about softball want to see. The discussion that will come up with any star Mav athlete of Would She be that Good at Creighton is off the table because we have seen what she can do as a Bluejay, and that was apparently when she was not the same player off the field.
It appears that the Creighton softball program has picked up a little this season, after losing their momentum for a few years. But something I found interesting is the RPI of Creighton and UNO since the transition. 2012: CU-135, UNO-234, then Mathewson transfers and UNO gets a good recruiting class…2013: CU-87, UNO-71, 2014: CU- 117, UNO-69. That right there should start some conversation with local softball fans. Should I have opened with that? I think the Mathewson transfer hurt Creighton in a way, it shows that Creighton is not the bigger dog of the two programs to the local girls that are looking to stay local, that the two programs are an equal playing field. Did I just make Mathewson the Mockingjay? Or the Mockingmav? Or the…okay I will shut up.
I do not want this to be a Creighton against UNO thing, yeah they will both go after some of the same recruits, but they still have to turn those recruits into great players and great women for the future. Creighton (and Nebraska, North Dakota State, and others) can be a measuring stick for the growth of the Mavericks softball program. With a great coach in Jeanne Scarpello (I have seen her refer to herself as an average coach), who has a Division 2 National Title under her belt, and players like Mathewson, the program definitely has a solid foundation to build off going into a fully fledged D-1 member.
With just 2 2/3 years so far at UNO, Mathewson has impressed us all, and already ranks in the top 25 in a number of statistical categories for the history of the Mavericks, but just because Mathewson is the most talked about player in the state of Nebraska, it does not mean the Mavericks live and die off of her. Softball is a true team sport, it takes commitment and team work from all the players on the field. The fellow members of her senior class Kat Borrow and Tonya Peterson have been great for the Mavericks throughout their careers. It seems like Campbell Ditto is one of the best clutch hitters in the Summit League. Lia Mancuso has been great, she leads the team with a .329 batting average this season. Freshmen Kelly Pattison seems to be knocking down some clutch hits, and Jaylee Hinrichs already has a couple pitcher of the week awards in her young career.
From the sounds of it as well, UNO has a great 2015 recruiting class. I know that much of the talent in softball comes from the west coast and that is where many of the bigger programs go to recruit players. Look at any SEC roster, it is generally made up of west coast girls. The top team in the Summit, North Dakota State, 11 of the 17 girls on their softball roster are from the west coast. None of that means that there is not talent in the Midwest though, the best players in the area are certainly going to hear from Nebraska, Creighton, and UNO for sure among others, but rarely do you see a Pac 12 school come to Nebraska to recruit some softball talent. It does happen though, Oregon has Karissa Hovinga who played at Papillion. So UNO definitely has a chance at the top players in the area, every single year. In a different sport like basketball or volleyball, I think it would be difficult for UNO at this point to go up against Nebraska and Creighton for a top level athlete from the area. Softball though, with the rich Division 2 History UNO had, Jeanne Scarpello, and players like Mathewson, Elsasser, Lutmer, Mancuso, Carly Nielsen who transferred from Michigan State and others, if there is a top level athlete from the area, UNO has just as much of a chance to get that player as the two bigger names. In some cases, the Mavs have a much better chance, they already have gotten some of those players.
When UNO first made the transition, I needed a minute, or a week, to process it. A friend of mine asked me, is UNO going to be any good and which of their programs will be the quickest to a conference championship/NCAA tournament bid. I immediately and uncontrollably came out with baseball for the men and softball for the women…Men’s soccer and Golf were kind of wild cards though being that they were not even implemented yet though. The softball team was the first UNO team to pick up a win over Nebraska, they have had more opportunities, and that is not exactly how a program should measure success, but still… In the fall, my wife and I were playing co-rec slow pitch and I checked Twitter before the game and informed her that Mav softball beat the Huskers twice in fall ball. My wife’s response, which I am sure is shared by many Mav fans, “it is a damn shame that team is not eligible for post season yet.”
I bring up my wife’s reactions to the stories we read in the Omaha World Herald on Mathewson’s transfer because they are somewhat similar stories, but also because I think it is easy for sports fans to immediately get ignorant when a player transfers and automatically go to “oh they could not cut it at the bigger school.” Some fans think that sports should be everything to these kids. There are several different reasons why student athletes transfer, and some players never transfer and never get out of their bad situation. Mathewson could play at the level of Creighton, which at the time, was bigger than UNO’s level. I may sound like a broken record here with things I have mentioned about the basketball team, but can you think of a better player, and even combined with her teammates, to help build the foundation for a transitioning program moving forward? I find it unfortunate that things could not work out for her at Creighton, but as a UNO alumni and sports fan I am proud that UNO could take in such a quality athlete, and who sounds to be a great quality person and athlete, and provide a good quality softball home for her.