published Sunday, May 11th, 2014

Chatt State quickly back among elite under Golden

Chattanooga State softball assistant coaches Amanda Lindsey, left, and Caitlin Ortiz flank Blythe Golden, who has the Lady Tigers back in the national top 10 and the NJCAA Division I tournament in her second season as a head coach.
Chattanooga State softball assistant coaches Amanda Lindsey, left, and Caitlin Ortiz flank Blythe Golden, who has the Lady Tigers back in the national top 10 and the NJCAA Division I tournament in her second season as a head coach.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

That didn't take long.

In Blythe Golden's second year as a head coach, the Chattanooga State softball team is 51-6 and headed this week to St. George, Utah, for the NJCAA Division I tournament. The Lady Tigers are back among the elite, ranked sixth in the national poll and holding the best winning percentage of any team in the national tourney.

Their team batting average is .390; seven regulars are hitting above .400. One pitcher, Shelby Willard, is 21-0 and the TCCAA pitcher of the year; another, Sharlene Godoy, was the most valuable player of the region final-five tournament, where the Lady Tigers went 3-0 with a 24-0 scoring margin.

Chattanooga State had been a fixture in the nationals, in fact winning the national title and finishing 62-4 in 2012, leading to coach Beth Keylon-Randolph and her staff moving to East Carolina University. With Keylon-Randolph's input, Golden was hired over more experienced coaches to succeed her, and some thought she wasn't ready.

That didn't change much when her first set of Lady Tigers, with only a few returners from the national-title team, went 35-14 overall and 29-9 in league play and finished third in the region tournament -- good numbers but not by the Chattanooga State standards established and maintained by Frank Reed, now at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Keylon-Randolph.

All that mattered was that Golden wasn't satisfied. The 28-year-old former junior college All-American and Stetson University catcher and academic stalwart wasn't made for mediocrity, and she and her assistants and their players made winning the region a no-excuses priority.

"Beth and I are very similar in our vision for the program -- basically, to win and be on top," said Golden, who pretty much had been running all the softball aspects of the Gulf Coast State program under the tutelage of Susan Painter. "Realistically, we probably finished where we should have last year. We lost three pitchers to four-year schools at the break, and while we were lucky to get Haley Fagan from Tennessee, Walters and Columbia State both had better pitching than we did overall."

She emphasized that president Jim Catanzaro, athletic director Kim Smith and everyone else at Chattanooga State were very supportive throughout. The Lady Tigers earned the Region VII academic award, for one thing.

"I think the majority of any pressure I felt, honestly, came from myself," she said. "I was very adamant about wanting to maintain what Chattanooga State was used to. I told the girls all the time that I hate to lose, and I was willing to work a hundred hours a week if that's what it took."

Recruiting top players obviously was part of the effort, and Golden and her staff brought in Godoy from California, slugging utility player Izzy McCurry from North Carolina and middle infielder Dana Horgan from the Atlanta area along with area and regional recruits such as Courtney Crawford, Lindsey Stickrod, Syndey Sloan and Hanna Manley, among others.

But "coaching up" the returning players also has been part of the remarkable job Golden, Amanda Lindsey and Caitlin Ortiz have done. Willard, for instance, essentially cut her ERA in half under Lindsey's guidance, and shortstop Baylee Williams from Farragut soared to a sensational sophomore season with team highs of a .416 average, an .805 slugging percentage, 14 home runs, 28 doubles, 79 RBIs and 66 runs scored. She's struck out only six times in 190 at-bats.

"Coach Golden makes me want to get better every day," Williams said.

"We had no idea about the players coming in. I think everybody [from the 2013 team] realized they were capable of more and worked hard over the summer," said Khadija Neely, the sophomore third baseman from Roanoke, Ala., who's hitting .414 with 10 homers, 12 other extra-base hits, a .729 slugging percentage, 46 RBIs and a team-high 22 walks. "We had some people who didn't play much at all as freshmen who are some of our best athletes this year."

The team started to believe with an outstanding fall exhibition schedule that -- as with the national-title year -- included a victory over UTC. But when the realization really set in was when the then-unranked Lady Tigers beat the defending national champions in their first game in February and then won 18 more games before losing. Several of their victims were national-tournament contenders, including Southern Union from Atmore, Ala., which will be with them in Utah.

"I am a very big believer in learning how to win, and to not be satisfied with less," Golden said. "When it's OK to go 3-2 in a weekend or 4-2, you can't reach the goals you want."

For a change, all but one of the Lady Tigers' losses have been to TCCAA foes, and one 2-2 weekend in particular became the turning point of the season, Golden said. On consecutive days, Chattanooga State won 12-0 and 19-0 in the first games of doubleheaders at Volunteer State, only to lose 9-5 and 16-15 in the rematches.

"That was a rough weekend," Neely and Williams said almost in unison, referring to the players' feelings and their coach's extreme irritation. "We did not want this to happen again."

Since that weekend, the Lady Tigers are 24-1, capped by their 24-0 run through three opponents on that same Vol State field last week. In each of those three games, they scored at least four runs in the first inning.

McCurry is hitting .416 with 13 homers in only 89 at-bats, and Elyse Ferguson, Stickrod, Crawford and Katy Richardson are batting .421, .413, .410 and .404-- Richardson and Stickrod with 52 and 48 RBIs. Catcher Emily Dagnan has 10 homers with a .345 average in addition to developing her defensive and pitch-calling skills.

Contact Ron Bush at rbush@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.

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