Former AUM coach leading Hornets softball to new heights
By Tim Gayle
Everywhere she’s been, Chris Steiner-Wilcoxson has had to change the mindset of her softball players.
She’s been a pioneer, a builder, a championship-caliber coach that won’t accept anything less, which makes the 2016 edition of Alabama State University softball a journey that didn’t end with the Southwestern Athletic Conference East Division title.
“We finished second last year in the conference,” she said. “It was everybody’s first go-round. This year, with the coaches and most of the girls returning, we knew exactly what we wanted and nothing less than that would be acceptable. We had to change that mindset. We are good and we can win.”
When Auburn University chose Steiner-Wilcoxson’s college coach to head the Tigers’ new softball program, the Huntingdon College two-sport star followed her to Auburn, earning a starting role on the team as a sophomore and becoming a team captain her final two years.
She built programs at Eufaula High and Palmetto (Fla.) High, setting school records for wins at both places. Her first collegiate coaching job was to start a program at Reinhardt College in 2005 and three years later she would take a similar position at Auburn University Montgomery, taking that program to an NAIA national championship in 2014. When she was offered the same position at Alabama State University in the weeks following that national championship, it provided her a chance to coach at the NCAA Division I-A level.
“It was something I always wanted to do, coach at the Division I-A level,” she said. “You’re always going to question and always wonder. Winning a national championship at AUM and then leaving it all to come over here and start over and establish yourself again is a big question mark. It’s a big leap of faith. Am I doing the right thing?
“Ultimately, it’s all about the kids. I know I’m a teacher, a mother, a guidance counselor but I also teach young women how to better themselves in all aspects of life. When you can do that and get to the heart and soul of a kid, they’re going to give it to you on the field. I think I’m very knowledgeable in coaching, but it’s the intricate, emotional, inside things that set me apart from other people in that I can really push somebody to be better. I refuse to allow myself to be less than that so I refuse to let them accept less than that for themselves.”
But was Alabama State ready to take that next step? The university had a sparkling new softball complex that spoke volumes about the administration’s commitment to the sport, but would the fans and the students be as excited about softball as Steiner-Wilcoxson?
“Alabama State wasn’t one to pride itself in softball,” she said. “They played and they had a good program, but it wasn’t in the mindset of the community or the ASU people that, hey, ASU softball is good, we need to go catch a game. People would call and schedule them for an easy win. We’re just people’s easy ‘W.’
“Every day is a learning experience. Of course, it was a new chapter. From NAIA to NCAA is very different in the way it works. But from the first day, I’ve been very embraced by the athletic department and by ASU. People are excited about us. That was a positive, intricate part” of building the program.
Almost immediately, Steiner-Wilcoxson and the Lady Hornets gave students and fans a reason to be excited. In 2015, the program led the Southwestern Athletic Conference in batting average (.321), slugging percentage (.465), on-base percentage (.391), runs scored (272), hits (471), RBI (247), doubles (79), triples (22), home runs (30), total bases (684), and hits by pitch (43).
Alabama State got hot down the stretch, winning 10 of 15 games from April 11 through May 8 to finish second in the SWAC East Division and advance to the SWAC Tournament championship game before losing to Texas Southern 9-0.
The first pitcher she recruited to ASU, Chelsea King, was named the SWAC Pitcher of the Year, just another chapter in Steiner-Wilcoxson’s recruiting prowess.
“One of the things I pride myself on is great recruiting,” she said. “I was able to get great kids to come to AUM who could have played DI ball or DII ball somewhere else but chose the atmosphere we had at AUM, the goal and the dream of what AUM was trying to do. Here, it’s basically the same, you’re just getting higher caliber kids to compete at a higher level. We’re competing against Auburn and Alabama for the same kids.
“There are good players everywhere, you’ve just got to find her and get her here. Once they’re here, they love the school, they love the atmosphere, they love the facilities, they love what we’re trying to build here.”
But while her first season was a success by ASU standards, it was just the first step in changing the mindset of the players. The 2016 season would prove to be another challenge. No longer would ASU be considered the easy W.
“We had to be more prepared,” Steiner-Wilcoxson said. “The girls can’t take it easy. You’re not the underdog any more. They had to come out and stay focused and stay on track. They had to bring their ‘A’ game every day. It’s been a learning experience. But once you learn it, it’ll be a lot easier to maintain it every year and keep that tradition going. Right now, the big thing is we’re just trying to get it established.”
ASU started the season by losing 12 of its first 16 games, but there was NCAA Tournament-level talent in many of those opponents, sending a clear message to the players that they could compete at that level.
“I think early in the season, with the schedule we played, going extra innings with Marshall and teams that had been in the NCAA Tournament before, beating teams they had not beaten before, we started thinking, ‘Hey, we are as good as these other people,”’ Steiner-Wilcoxson said. “I think you’ve got to have that mindset and you’ve got to have that culture.”
The Hornets’ mindset will be put to the test this week in the SWAC Tournament at Shea Brothers Softball Complex in Irondale. ASU opens play on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. against UAPB and will continue play in the double-elimination tournament on Thursday against either Southern or Mississippi Valley State. The tournament championship will be Saturday at 2 p.m., with an NCAA Tournament berth awaiting the winner.
“We told the girls you’re going to have to fight,” Steiner-Wilcoxson said. “If you want this, it’s all in your hands but you’re going to have to fight for it because no one is going to give it to you. If they want it, they’ve got to go after it.
“They know what that feeling was last year after fighting all the way through and then losing in the last game and not doing their best work. They’ve carried that with them and remembered it all year. They seem pretty pumped about it and seem excited to get there and show people who they are and what they are.”