Ben Tyree expected to start the season with two Division I transfers on the bump.
Instead, Trevecca Nazarene’s softball coach employed the services of position players Kelsey Kemp and Lindsey Stephens. Neither had pitched since high school.
The patchwork and versatility not only aided the injury plagued Trojans, who were down to nine players in early March, but boosted them into a national tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
“At one point I didn’t think we were going to be able to play,” Stephens said. “One bad thing and somebody could get hurt and we wouldn’t even have a team anymore. But a lot of people stepped up. … We are all really good utility players. We’re good athletes.”
After sweeping the Great Midwest Athletic Conference (G-MAC) regular-season and tournament championships in the first year of the league, Trevecca received an at-large bid to play in the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship in Botetourt, Va.
The Trojans (28-10) are the 10th seed in the 10-team, double-elimination tournament and open against No. 7 seed Geneva (Pa.) College at 11 a.m. Thursday. Trevecca finished third last year.
Though Tyree believed this was his best Trevecca team in five years as coach, the bumps and bruises threatened early and often. He figures the Trojans lost more than 10 games due to cancellation or inclement weather.
Belmont transfer and starting pitcher Devon Schmidt had shoulder surgery before Christmas break and was forced to redshirt. Shortstop Ansley Brantley broke her ankle in practice sliding into home plate a week before the season opener. Outfielder Haylee Rogers missed the first half of the season recovering from shoulder surgery. Infielder Aubrey Jordan missed time due to a concussion.
The Trojans didn’t panic. Instead, they improvised.
Tyree added a walk-on for extra help in practice and turned to sophomores Kemp and Stephens.
Both players have helped fill the void Brantley left at short. And when they aren’t in the infield, they’re pitching — combining for a 20-6 record, 11 complete games and one no-hitter apiece. Senior Natalie Papini has provided a veteran presence. The Murfreesboro native and former Tennessee State pitcher is 8-2 with a team-best ERA of 1.70 despite dealing with two herniated discs in her back since February.
“Our girls are pretty versatile,” Tyree said. “They can play so many different positions and we just have to plug somebody in and try to get through until we can get everybody back. We’re in pretty good shape right now.”
Regardless of how it has looked, adjusting to new roles hasn’t been easy.
For Kemp, the last thing she wanted to do was pitch. She had primarily played second base at Lawrence County High School and started the season in center field, filling in for the injured Rogers. When Schmidt was forced to have surgery, Tyree told Stephens and a reluctant Kemp to practice throwing over Christmas break because he might need them.
“At first I didn’t have a lot of confidence because I didn’t pitch a lot,” Kemp said. “They kept on assuring me that I could do it and gave me the confidence to do it. … From the very beginning, [Tyree] told me he had a lot of confidence in me and the more he told the more I believed it.”
Those positive vibes have paid off for the right-hander. She has easily been the team’s most dominant pitcher with an 11-2 record, 77 strikeouts and with opponents hitting just .203 off her.
Stephens has been just as consistent. An All-American third baseman last year as a freshman, the righty is 9-4 with 11 complete games. Months ago, neither expected to be toeing the rubber. But they and the rest of their teammates did anticipate playing for a national championship.
“I never had any doubt that we wouldn’t be right here where we are now,” Papini said. “We’re a strong group. Injuries they’ll come and go. That’s just part of it and you have to work through it.”
• Tops in tournament: The Trojans did it the hard way but they rattled off three straight wins to win the first G-MAC baseball tournament championship.
Trevecca, the No. 1 seed and host, squandered a four-run lead Monday and lost 6-5 to Cedarville (Ohio) in the first game of the three-team, double-elimination tournament. The Trojans bounced back with two wins on Tuesday, starting with coming back from a three-run deficit for a 6-5 win to oust Urbana (Ohio). They then beat Cedarville 12-7 to set up a winner-take-all matchup on Wednesday.
Trevecca jumped ahead in the sixth with three runs, winning 10-7. Dakota Angell scattered seven hits and allowed just two runs in seven innings. Catcher Cameron Boyett led the Trojans (31-20) with three hits.
With the win, Trevecca claimed the inaugural G-MAC Presidents’ Cup, holding off Cedarville. The Trojans claimed nine conference regular-season or tournament championships, including sweeps in women’s soccer, softball and baseball.
The baseball team quickly returns to action as it hosts the NCCAA Mid-East Regional, which runs Thursday through Saturday.