It was early April, and the members of the Longwood softball team found themselves in unfamiliar territory.
The squad was reeling after losing its second-straight Big South conference series, dropping the Lancers to last place in the conference standings. It was an uncomfortable spot for a team coming off back-to back Big South titles.
And the disappointing start didn’t stop there. The Lancers, beset by an uncharacteristically porous defense and a lack of run-producing power at the plate, stumbled to a 12-19 record halfway through the season. It was a shock not only to those in Longwood’s clubhouse but also to the rest of the Big South, whose coaches had predicted a third-straight Big South Championship for the Lancers.
But good teams find a way to win games, and good programs find a way to win championships.
Longwood’s turnaround began on April 21 when they strung together three straight hard-fought wins in a series sweep against Charleston Southern, setting in motion an unstoppable wave of momentum that propelled the Lancers to a spot in the conference tournament and, as predicted, their third-straight Big South crown. They went on to stunning victories over No. 25 Ohio State and 45-game-winner USC Upstate in the NCAA Knoxville Regional, advancing to the regional final for the second-straight year.
But for all the improvements the Lancers made at the plate, for all the spectacular plays they made look routine and for all the gutsy, run-saving performances on the mound from the pitching duo of Elizabeth McCarthy ’17, a kinesiology major from Dunnsville, and Sydney Gay ’19, a sociology major from Carrollton, what provided the foundation for Longwood’s remarkable turnaround in 2017 came from off the field.
The team’s winning culture, built over more than 20 years under the direction of two-time Big South Coach of the Year Kathy Riley, is what clinched Longwood’s status as a Big South dynasty with this year’s memorable come-from-behind season. In just five years, Longwood softball has won more games in the NCAA postseason than any other program in Big South history. They are the first Big South team to advance to back-to-back regional championships and are on a historic run in conference play with four Big South Championships in the past five years. Their most recent conference title came, fittingly and deservedly, in front of their hometown fans, with hundreds outlining Lancer Field on May 14 to watch Longwood upend No.1 seed Liberty 4-2 in the Big South Championship game.
The 2017 season was unlike any the Lancers have experienced since joining the Big South. Counted out by many, they rose from the ashes to add yet another trophy to their mantel in Farmville. That’s what a winning culture will do for a program, and there’s a lot more room on the mantel.