In their last season as a Division III program, the UTD softball team sports high expectations and a close-knit identity.
While they are not the top-ranked team in the ASC, Head Coach Kelly Archer said that the Comets are still hoping to compete for the conference title as they begin to prepare for the transition to being an NCAA DII team next year. Several new Comets will bolster the roster, and the team has emphasized improving its offense this season. In addition to on-field preparations, a key ingredient for a successful softball season is team chemistry. Archer said he has never seen a closer bunch of girls before – in large part because of the death of Coach Abby Sterling last fall.
“A lot of teams say that they’re like a family … but with what these girls have been through, my team is living it,” Archer said. “These players want to win. But I think for them, it’s even more important to be together. We want to have a good season, we expect to win a lot of games, but we are also living the mantra that there are things more important than how many games you win.”
In the offseason, Archer said the softball field was “their place.” When the Athletics department offered the team a conference room on campus to meet in, the players instead opted to set up a portable fireplace in the outfield. The team could frequently be found gathered there to spend time together, even after practices stopped in the winter.
“After mourning, it was easy to be around one another all the time,” healthcare management senior Megan Zatopek said. “We helped distract each other from what was happening in life.”
The players are confident that this chemistry will translate to on-field success. Zatopek said that the team is committed to honoring their late coach with their performance this season. And Archer said that even though the team is now short a coach, the players asked that the department not hire a replacement for Sterling until the end of the season.
“The 31 of us lost Abby together,” Archer said. “If you bring somebody in from the outside, they won’t understand. No matter how good of a coach they are, they didn’t go through this experience. So, they would rather play one coach short.”
On the field, the Comets had a strong defense last year and thrived on run prevention. However, they had a difficult time scoring runs — an anomaly for the Comets, who tend to have an offensively-oriented team identity — and ultimately were eliminated by Mary Hardin-Baylor in the ASC tournament. Archer said that the team, which returns its No. 2 and No. 3 pitchers from last year, is hoping to maintain the run-prevention element of their game while improving offensively in 2024.
“Defense is absolutely going to continue to be a highlight of the team,” said business administration junior Addison Caddell, last year’s All-ASC 3rd baseman. “And I think our hitting is going to come around this year, as well. Our energy is going to be super fun, and [people who come out] are going to see the hard work we put in this offseason.”
One possible difference-maker for the Comets is freshman recruit Cadence Hernandez. Archer said that the infielder, who primarily plays first base, hasn’t won the job yet — but as Hernandez was a two-time offensive player of the year in high school, she has the potential to be a big-time bat.
“I want to be able to make an impact at the plate,” Hernandez said. “That’s been one of the teams’ struggles in the past, and I think I can help with that.”
Another big addition is education junior Gracelyn Taylor. The catcher transferred to UTD from NCAA DII TWU, because of her familiarity with Coach Archer and her desire to join the Comets because of their team culture. She described the team as a group that will be competitive because the players constantly cheer each other on and refuse to give up.
“Our kids are confident in themselves, and they know they can compete,” Archer said. “We have beat top-10 ranked teams, and while we’re not ready to do that routinely, we’re competitive [in the ASC]. All things considered, we are in a pretty good place.”
The softball season will begin on Feb. 17 with a doubleheader at home against Ottowa University. All UTD students get free admission to the games if they present their Comet cards, and all of the players stressed how much it means when students do show up to support the team.
“I don’t think people realize how fun it is to be out here, even just to watch,” biochemistry senior Olivia Reed said. “UTD has a great community here, and hopefully, we’ll get more students to come see it.”