At the outset of the season, Texas State softball head coach Ricci Woodard was faced with a challenge. After seeing six seniors move on from the program following the 2021 season, Woodard would need to find new leadership in her dugout.
Building chemistry, developing relationships and understanding how to play with each other takes time, and with such a young roster, Woodard knew she had to find some way to help the team gel.
"I wanted to put together a team that was gonna to compete day in and day out," Woodard said. "I knew coming in that was gonna be a little bit tougher for the group because we had so many new players come in who needed to play for us despite not having much experience at this level."
That lack of experience led to an up and down start of the Bobcat's season. At one point in April, Texas State held a 20-17 overall record and was only 6-8 in conference play, which was certainly not what the team was hoping for. Luckily, a couple of 'Cats stepped up to the plate and took charge of the team, helping lead them to a 17-game win streak, a 38-19 overall record and an appearance in the Sun Belt Conference championship game.
"If you want to go by leadership and getting things done, [Caitlyn and Jessica] were the main two that I felt put us in a really good spot in May," Woodard said. "Their game just continued to elevate throughout the season which ultimately helped elevate the whole team."
The dynamic duo of senior catcher Caitlyn Rogers and sophomore pitcher Jessica Mullins helped wrangle their team together and propelled them to success both on and off the field. Rogers was fantastic at the plate, leading the team in on-base percentage and tying for the team lead in home runs with seven. Mullins on the other hand was putting batters to bed all season long, earning a 27-13 record including 22 complete games and 253 total strikeouts.
What might have been more important though, was the spark they brought to the team.
"We hype each other up and motivate each other more than we already are," Rogers said. "We’re like the two loudest people on the team, so we already have enough of that in the tank but when we’re together it’s like an overload. We definitely have plenty of energy."
Woodard admits that even though she may have to temper her two stars every so often, she still loves that passion and drive and believes they have been crucial to the team's success.
"They’d probably tell you I tell them to tone it down a little every once in a while," Woodard said. "But every team needs that energy and that fire, it’s kinda what drives Mullins to be who she is too. That little bit of fire and little bit of cockiness that comes with it. So when you find players with that type of energy and that type of hype then you kind of just got to ride it."
That self-starter mentality is one of Mullins' key factors in her early success. As a sophomore, Mullins has already become one of Texas State's most decorated players. This year, she was named the Sun Belt Conference Pitcher of the year and earned a spot in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Division I All-Central first team. All that came after an impressive freshman year that landed her on the All-Sun Belt Conference first team and NCFA Division I All-Central second team. Mullins said that her success during her two years at Texas State all comes from the inside.
"I came to Texas State wanting to be successful," Mullins said. "I'm a self-driven, self-motivated person and I wanted to prove people wrong. Me and coach Woodard actually just figured out that that was my 'it' factor, that I just wanted to prove people wrong. It just never goes away. I just want to keep showing people that I’m valuable here and I always want to be here and there’s nothing that’s really gonna change that."
With the team struggling to gain any traction, Woodard remembers the series against the University of Louisiana Monroe as a turning point for her squad. After ULM took the first two games of the series, things clicked for the softball team in the series finale victory and set them on a trajectory for the rest of the season.
"To me, that’s probably the highlight cause you could just see the turnaround of the approach we were taking, and as a coach that’s one of the biggest things we look for," Woodard said. "So I stopped messing with the lineup so much cause things were going in the direction we were needing to go."
Rogers said there was a mentality shift at that point in the season that allowed the team to really lock-in. She said the team understood what was at stake with each and every game and things just took off.
"We just kind of got on a roll and everyone was clicking, and at that point of our season there was no fear," Rogers said. "It was just like this is what we have to do if we want to be good and we want to have a chance, so I think everyone knew what was on the line and it was just gritty from there."
Winning with that much consistency takes all hands on deck. Every member of the team must contribute in some way, even the youngest ones. That's exactly what freshman outfielder Ciara Trahan did this season, earning the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year award for her efforts.
Rogers and Mullins agree that Trahan was the team's most improved player this year.
"Ciara Trahan. She came out her freshman year and she was just on fire," Mullins said. "She did have some struggles but I think she showed the most growth because she learned to overcome those and as a freshman that’s very hard to do. I’m just really proud of the player and person she’s become."
The growth this team experienced throughout the season and the run they went on all make this a successful season in most eyes. Although the team fell one win short of a championship, it is something Woodard is looking to rectify next season. Nonetheless, she's appreciative of her team's growth.
“We got to try to understand that every game matters and you can’t wait until the end to turn it on," Woodard said. "You can kind of see they changed their approach, they decided to get after it and figured out how to bear down and go win ball games later in the season. And so the lesson that I’ve got to figure out is how to get them to do that earlier, how to get them to battle in September, October, November the way they did in April and May.”