Team earns first national NFCA/NCAA Top 25 ranking in program history

2 weeks ago
Summer Lebel
Mercury Staff

UTD’s softball team earned their first national ranking after opening the season with the best start in program history.

The NFCA/NCAA Division III rankings listed UTD softball as the 18th best team in the country on its Feb. 22 poll. The Comets started the season with a 5-0 record leading up to their first loss of the year against Sul Ross State. They bounced back, going 10-1 before dropping two out of three on the road against Belhaven. This stumble caused the team to fall off the top 25 in the March 1 poll, though they still earned 17 points in the voting.

Head coach Rich Wieligman is in his second year with the team, which went 25-20 last year before losing in the ASC semifinals.

“This year, they picked the ball up and started right back where they left off and kept going,” Wieligman said. “That’s fun to see, that they’ve kept it together.”

Sophomore outfielder Melissa Livermore set the school record for career steals during a game against LeTourneau on March 3 with her 78th steal. She said the players have bought in to the program, which has allowed them to keep building off their success from the previous season.

“It’s incredible to have a great start like we did and just keep going,” Livermore said. “Everyone is all in and knows now how far we can go.”

The team uses the motto “Ohana,” a Hawaiian word meaning family. Livermore said that dynamic has contributed to the team’s success.

“I really think the freshmen have joined as part of our ohana,” she said. “It’s like we’ve known each other for so much more than three-fourths of a year.”

Following the rough series against Belhaven that took the Comets from 10-1 to 11-3 on the season, Wieligman reminded his players that development is a process.

“They get frustrated now because their expectations rise and it’s putting pressure on them,” he said.

For Wieligman, the team’s accountability following losses is a sign of maturity.

“Nobody likes to lose, but they take a lot of pride in what they do,” he said. “I think that’s really growing up and having that championship mentality.

The first three losses of the year all came during long road trips to Sul Ross in Alpine, Texas and Belhaven in Jackson, Miss.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get that done right,” Wieligman said. “It’s tough to get on a bus for that long.”

In addition to getting out of the game mindset, the bus ride also caused issues with stiff legs that requires extra running to shake off.

“You don’t realize it’s that big of a deal until you start playing and your focus is taken away because you’ve been sitting on a bus for so long,” Livermore said.

Players have been waiting for the announcement of rankings, but Wieligman said he was focused on other things.

“It hadn’t entered my mind, but then I got the call,” he said. “It was a good surprise.”

For the players, it’s something special to remember.

“That record will never be broken,” Wieligman said.

Two ASC teams are ranked higher than UTD, East Texas Baptist University and UT Tyler, who won the national title last season. Livermore said the team is optimistic looking forward to games against them as well as other opponents.

“There’s not always a set winner,” she said. “Anything can change.”