A look back at the University of Montevallo softball team’s inaugural season
Story by Katie McDowell
Photos by Timothy McMillian/University of Montevallo and Michael Wade/University of Montevallo
It did not take long for the University of Montevallo softball team to make its presence known last year.
Although the Falcons were predicted to finish last in their conference in a preseason coaches’ poll, they made it to the Peach Belt Conference tournament, ended the season as sixth in the conference and made a mark on campus through community involvement and volunteer work.
It was a year Coach Lindsay Vanover and her team will never forget. Vanover and her team had the chance to build a team from the ground up: establishing team values and building relationships with each other and in the community.
The University of Montevallo moved quickly after an August 2013 announcement that the college would add a softball team for the first time in school history.
At the time, Vanover was serving as an assistant coach at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The idea of serving as a team’s first coach did not intimidate her. Her father was a football coach and she had watched him build a lot of teams from the ground up.
“I thought, ‘Wow, what an opportunity. This would be a dream of mine,’” she recalled.
So she applied for the job, and her professional and personal life quickly fell into place. She accepted the UM coaching job, got engaged soon after and started her first day of work on Jan. 4, 2014.
“I took the job, got married, hired a staff, hired my assistant (coach) and just tried to make it through the year,” she said.
After starting work, her first goal was to recruit players. The inaugural team’s players were all freshmen or junior transfers from community colleges.
Saralyn Campbell was one of those players. Now a sophomore, she plays third base and catcher and had the highest GPA on the team last year.
The Olympia, Wash., native, had never visited Alabama or even heard of the University of Montevallo until Vanover reached out to her. Campbell knew Vanover from Darmouth, where she had attended training camps.
She visited UM and was drawn to the school’s honors college, business school, small class sizes and, of course, the chance to play softball at a college level.
“That was the main draw,” she said. “There was something special and exciting to be part of an inaugural team.”
Jostlyn Higgerson, now a senior, agrees. The Enterprise native joined the team after two years playing softball at Darton State College in Albany, Ga.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to get to play softball after my junior college experience,” she said.
Higgerson, a pitcher, was one of the last players added to UM’s inaugural roster. She was planning to attend UM anyway to study nutrition and was thrilled and nervous to join a rookie team.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking to be part of an inaugural team for a school,” she said.
After recruiting students from January through May 2014, Vanover turned her attention to the search for an assistant coach, a process that made her far more nervous.
“I was so scared to hire an assistant because I didn’t want to screw up,” she said.
Luckily, she found Alexa Peterson, who played for the University of Oregon in college and now plays professionally for the Pennsylvania Rebellion of the National Pro Fastpitch league.
Vanover, Campbell and Higgerson all said the first season was a whirlwind, but opening day stands out as one of the highlights. More than 1,000 people showed up to watch the Faclons’ Opening Day beat the University of West Alabama in back-to-back walk-off wins.
“There were literally people watching from the trees because there weren’t enough seats,” Campbell said.
Although the Falcons ended the season 21-31, Vanover was proud of their first season, especially making the conference tournament and the grit her players showed in several tough games.
The team also has concrete goals for this season, which began in early February. They want to be better in all aspects of the game this year and are shooting for a winning season and another trip to the Peach Belt tournament.
This year’s roster includes about 28 players from all four years. Vanover said the players selected a theme for the year, “Win from Within,” which they printed on team shirts and use in social media posts. During practice, they have focused on improving the technical aspects of their game, as well as the intangibles.
“They’ve got to buy in every day with the attitude and effort,” she said.
Vanover describes the team as a big family. They may squabble at times, but at the end of the day, they support and respect each other.
“They’re going to compete for the same position, but they have got to be each other’s biggest fans,” she said.
Although the players can no longer claim rookie status, they still have the passion that drove them during their inaugural season. Campbell said this year’s team is stronger and “a force to be reckoned with.” The players want to establish a reputation in their conference as competitors.
“We definitely want to make it back into the conference this year, and we want to make it farther in the conference,” she said.
The players are also particularly looking forward to a trip to Puerto Rico for a spring tournament. For some players, it will be their first time on a plane, and Vanover is excited that softball is giving her players the chance to travel and experience a different culture. She hopes to do a similar trip every three to four years, so all of the players will have the opportunity to travel during their college softball career.
The trip would not have been possible without the support of the community, which helped with funds to send the players to Puerto Rico.
Vanover and her players have worked hard to show their appreciation to the community. In addition to the financial support, the University of Montevallo and the city have embraced the team and provided a lot of encouragement since it started.
“People have been so supportive in the community,” Higgerson said, noting she heard from many community members who were excited to follow the team’s progress.
To give back, the players volunteer with local elementary schools, the Boys and Girls Club, the Field of Angels and more.
With practice most days of the week, monthly volunteer opportunities and regular schoolwork, the players stay busy. But, as Campbell points out, they all came to UM for the same reason: to play softball at the highest collegiate level they could.
“This is probably one of the best decisions I have made in my life up until this point,” she said. “‘It’s been a whirlwind experience, and it’s definitely something I am very grateful to be a part of.”