SOFTBALL: Hilltoppers bid farewell to first class of seniors

Kyle Hightower

The birth of Western’s softball program began three years ago. As the team prepares for their last regular season game against No. 21 ranked Louisiana-Lafayette, two members will say goodbye.

Seniors Brandy Hawkins and Kristalyn Smith made school history as they become the team’s first fourth-year seniors to walk across the stage to receive their degrees.

“It’ll be strange without Brandy and Kristalyn because they’ve been here as long as I have been here,” head coach Leslie Phelan said. “I watched them grow from 18-year-old freshmen to graduating seniors entering the real world.”

Hawkins spent most of this season filling the leadership role needed for the team. Her freshman year she had 12 runs, 21 hits, and knocked in five RBIs, while hitting .253 behind the plate.

After a quiet season her sophomore year, Hawkins picked back up where she left off in her junior season, scoring five runs, slugging in 13 RBIs, with a .242 batting average.

This season she has started 36 of 38 games as a first baseman and designated hitter, collecting 13 runs and 16 hits (as of April 27).

“It’s truly, truly bittersweet,” Hawkins said. “I’m so glad to graduate, (but) the team and people I will be leaving, it will be hard to let go of that.”

Hawkins will graduate in May with a degree in communications.

Smith will be leaving a mark at Western as the school’s record-holder in hits. This season she hit .292 with 26 runs, 45 hits, and 28 RBIs. She also had some action on the mound, starting two games.

Last season she had an All-Sun Belt year with 13 runs, 45 hits, 27 RBIs, and a .308 batting average. She also went 10-2 as a pitcher with a 1.95 ERA.

She hit the wall during her sophomore season after having an outstanding freshman year, when she hit .250 with 24 runs, 35 hits, and 16 RBIs.

Smith is graduating with a public health degree, and will be student teaching next fall at Greenwood High.

“I’ll miss the girls and having 15 best friends and being able to be yourself around the team,” Smith said. “We have good camaraderie and I will miss being a part of a team.”

The team originally had three seniors to depart, but that changed when left fielder Jessie Richardson severed a tendon in her right hand earlier in the season.

Richardson learned that she would have to sit out for the rest of the season and wait to play for a fifth year next season.

“It’s been hard (for me),” Richardson said. “I’d love to be out there, but it’s a learning experience watching my team.”

It’s been a learning experience for the team, as well, coping with several injuries that led to inconsistency in the lineup.

After the Hilltoppers went 37-22 last season, this year has not been what Phelan has expected.

“Our record (26-26, 4-6 Sun Belt) was disappointing,” Phelan said. “I felt we had our best team yet – I still believe that – but we faced a lot of adversity with injuries after injures and people playing out of position.”

What killed Western the most was losing so many close games. The team lost 10 games decided by one run and five two-run games.

“We struggled with that two years ago when we had a sub par season (23-37),” Phelan said. “We really turned things around last year, so I thought maybe we put that behind us. Looks like it came back again.”

Reach Amber North at [email protected]