Harrogate, TN. (WATE) – On a warm Wednesday ahead of their first ever NCAA Tournament game, Lincoln Memorial softball is loose and relaxed.
“All of a sudden, people expect you to do well,” head coach Ritchie Richardson chuckles. “They expect you to win.”
That hasn’t been the expectation for the Lady Railsplitters in a long time. Richardson’s seen things change quickly.
“We’re not just trying to make it, we’re not just happy that we made a region,” says freshman Sierra Hucklebee. “We’re trying to win the region. We’re trying to go to nationals and win nationals.”
She knows what winning looks like. The former Gibbs standout helped her high school win it’s tenth state title in 2017. Now, after hitting .347 with 6 home runs and 37 RBI, the SAC Freshman of the Year is a key player on the first LMU softball team to reach the NCAA Tournament.
“Coming in, we only had four Tennesseeans on our roster. So it was one of our main focuses.”
There’s nine on the roster now and five from East Tennessee. Freshman McKenzie Henry (William Blount grad) leads the team in home run and RBI, while sophomore Emma Webb (CAK) is second on the team in batting average at .379. Kelsie Tuggle (Farragut) and Tori Voiles (The King’s Academy) comprise the other area athletes on the roster.
“You want to represent East Tennessee like no one else can,” says Hucklebee.
“Bunch of schools don’t always recruit the local girls,” adds Webb. “To have so many of us that’s good talent, it’s awesome.”
After missing the conference tournament the last two years, the Lady Railsplitters celebrated their first conference title, first regional ranking, and first national ranking in school history this spring. That was always Richardson’s plan. Inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2009, the former LMU baseball standout won 917 games with NAIA’s Olivet Nazarene in Illinois before being hired by his alma mater in 2017.
“It’s amazing to see him tell us from the start, this is what we’re gonna do, we’re here to win championships,” says senior Allie Jones. “It’s really awesome to see him speak it into existence.”
There’s plenty more for them to pursue of course, but regardless, it’s a year this school, and these athletes won’t ever forget.
“When you first come as a freshman, you think did I make the right decision,” says Jones, fighting back tears. “After four years I can say, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.”