Lee University softball seniors Tabitha Farrow, front, Brittany Ballough, left, and Kelsey Barnes.Ron Bush/Chattanooga Times Free Press
The Lee University softball team followed the best season in program history two years ago with the worst in Emily Russell's tenure as coach. This year's seniors joined Russell in vowing that there would be no repeat of 2011, even though Lee still won 10 games more than it lost.
The higher standards have prevailed as promised.
The Lady Flames go into the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament today in Columbus, Ga., as the East Division regular-season champions and the NAIA's 10th-ranked team. They are 46-8, 23-4 in SSAC play, while West champ William Carey is ranked sixth at 41-8 (20-4) and Shorter is No. 12 at 42-9 (22-5).
Lee opens today at 6 p.m. against the winner of the 10 a.m. game between Belhaven and Emmanuel. Shorter, which includes several players from area Georgia high schools, faces Mobile at 4.
Lee was 26-16 last year, 17-8 in the league, and its season ended with a loss in the SSAC tournament and no NAIA ranking. Russell recently reached 400 wins for her 10-year career, which means she's averaging more than 40 per season, and in 2010 the Lady Flames reached No. 2 in the national poll and wound up 57-5 with Johanna Gomez as the national pitcher of the year and the SSAC's player of the year.
"A lot of teams in our league were at their peak last year, so that was part of it," Russell said. "And we had some injuries, but we also had some girls who did not step up and compete.
"We had a heart-to-heart [talk] immediately after our last game was over. I told the  seniors, 'Go over there.' Then I looked at the 15 who were left and said, 'How are we going to be better? And if you're not going to do anything to help, then don't come back.' We needed to change our culture a little bit.
"I promised our returners, 'This won't happen again,' and I think they've all stepped it up. Our newcomers bought in to that, too."
Taking over as the team ace with 2010 NAIA pitcher of the year Johanna Gomez no longer available, then-junior Brittany Balough went 15-10 despite playing with stress fractures in her right foot after getting hit by a batted ball in March. She had been 15-2 as Lee's No. 2 pitcher in 2010, and she is 24-2 this season with a 1.31 earned run average. She's in an 8-0 streak with a 0.86 ERA.
The 5-foot-10 Californian admits she is not a strikeout pitcher, so her confidence largely stems from the defense behind her and timely offense.
"The big difference was that we played as a team my sophomore year, and last year we had a group of individuals playing for themselves," Balough said Tuesday.
Senior left fielder Tabitha Farrow from Ooltewah agreed.
"I think that definitely happened," Farrow said, "and we kept digging our hole deeper. Speaking for myself, individually, being disciplined last year was a struggle. But I think just knowing how those seniors felt in that moment when their careers ended, you had to look at yourself and say, 'What can I do more?'
"And I think we have been disciplined. Being around this group of girls just makes it all so much better."
Aggressive on the bases, the Lady Flames have the three top run producers in the SSAC batting back to back to back: senior second baseman Kelsey Barnes and sophomore Ana Coscorrosa with 63 RBIs apiece and designated player Charlie Wooden with 49. Coscorrosa is batting .445 with freshman right fielder Dominique Hannah at .423, leadoff batter Jennifer Ringle at .420 with 45 runs scored and Wooden and Barnes hitting .387 and .385.
Center fielder Savanna Bell has scored 50 runs, and Barnes and Coscorrosa have crossed the plate 47 and 43 times.
Ringle at shortstop and fellow junior Dezirae Parsons at third base have shored up the defense behind Balough and freshman pitcher Jessa Watts (17-5, 2.13). And Barnes got past some former injury issues and became more mobile as a defender.
"Last year I kind of felt I had to strike people out and make perfect pitches all the time," Balough said. "But our defense is pretty strong in general, and as far as I've come maturity wise, especially on the field, I have been focusing on keeping my composure and keeping the team together. Composure is one of the important things for a pitcher."
Said Barnes: "It's a confidence thing. We've done well all season, for the most part, and now I just want to go out on a strong note personally and as a team."