Marshall's Andi Williamson leads Conference USA with 23 wins.
If you need a progress report on the state of the state's softball, consider Marshall's effort last weekend against Central Florida.In the regular-season final series with Conference USA implications, Harts native Andi Williamson finished 24 innings of shutout ball against the Knights, some of the best pitching in her life.Behind her were two Huntington natives, Samantha Spurlock in left field and Ashley Gue at second base, along with Clay County's Alysia Hively at first base. All helped the Thundering Herd play errorless ball.Hively led off the bottom of the 10th inning on that Sunday afternoon at Dot Hicks Field and finally put an end to the marathon. She blasted a 3-1 pitch well over the fence in right-center field, finishing a sweep in thrilling fashion.
"It was one of those that when it was hit, the dugout just went nuts," said MU coach Shonda Stanton. "I didn't even see where it went and I turned around to watch the celebration, made sure they didn't touch her coming around third and nullify the home run."Hively's shot gave the Herd a 34-20 overall record, pulling into a three-way tie for third place in the nine-team league at 15-9. One of those tied teams was UCF, which was three games ahead of Marshall entering the weekend.To put that in better perspective, the Herd was 5-17-1 in league play last year and 3-20-1 in 2010. And West Virginia's only Division I program engineered that turnaround with more contributions than ever from in-state talent.Stanton, the 13th-year coach who brings in players from coast to coast, has noticed the improvement in state talent over the years, especially on travel teams such as the Diamond Dusters."Our rosters have always been peppered with in-state products," Stanton said. "But as far as the impact these kids are making, these girls definitely have stepped up."Hively, a 4.0 grade-point-average student who has come back from two surgeries, hit her sixth home run of the season. Gue, a Cabell Midland graduate, is batting .315 with a team-high 32 stolen bases. Spurlock, a Huntington High grad, joined the team's Lil Sis Program as a youngster.But as the Herd's leading pitcher, Williamson (first name pronounced "AHN-dee") is the most visible of the bunch. She was named C-USA pitcher of the week for the second time this season after her triple shutout of UCF.She leads the league in wins (23) and innings (215), is second in strikeouts (253) and is third in earned-run average (1.47). Batters are hitting just .187 off her.The 2009 West Virginia sportswriters' prep player of the year is becoming one of Marshall's best ever in the pitcher's circle."What she is doing, as far as being able to pitch back to back to back, we've never done that with anyone," Stanton said. "We've had some great pitchers who've had 20-win seasons, but as far as the sheer durability and the 'Here's the game ball, we'll roll with you,' it's been absolutely incredible."After leading Chapmanville to state titles in 2007 and 2009, Williamson signed with Tennessee, logging five innings for a powerful team that finished third in the 2010 College World Series. But a death in the family and general homesickness led her to transfer to Marshall.
Softball players can do so without penalty, so she pitched for the Herd in 2010. She split the starting duties with two other pitchers in 2010, going 7-12 with a 3.66 ERA. That wasn't up to her standards, or even close."I remember calling my dad after the conference tournament, crying because we got beat," she said. "I was saying, 'Dad, this summer I want you to work my butt off because I don't want to be in this situation again next year.' ""Dad" is Andy Paul Williamson, the former Marshall point guard who cut his career short in 1989, citing lost interest in the game. But two decades later, he is putting another imprint on MU athletics."He's very hands-on," Andi said. "And he works with me on my mental game, as well. Me and him are really similar when it comes to playing sports; we have the same personality on the field and on the court, you could say, so my dad has a big role in that."Stanton sees that and other factors in Williamson's rise."I think the biggest thing is she's healthy," Stanton said. "Last year, she had nagging injuries, wasn't able to be in the kind of shape she's in this year. You go from high school to college, there's definitely going to be an adjustment. When she wasn't getting innings as a freshman, there was a period of getting back into things in her sophomore year.
"This summer, she put in a lot of work, ready to go and in great shape. And gosh, she's been lights-out."No. 3 seed Marshall begins play in the single-elimination C-USA tournament at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, taking on No. 6 East Carolina at Birmingham, Ala.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com
, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.