West Florida has had a remarkable turnaround this season. Under the tutelage of second-year head coach Melissa Paul, the Argonauts have turned last season’s 19-win season into a distant memory.
UWF is riding a 15-game win streak that sees them sitting at a surprising 36-11 heading into their regular season finale this weekend in a three-game set with Shorter. Earlier this season they swept then-No. 18 Valdosta State. This past weekend they swept No. 21 Delta State.
“Momentum is huge in our sport,” head coach Melissa Paul said. “Hopefully that’s carrying us. We don’t ever talk about [the win streak], we harp on the process and doing the little things right, and it showed up this past weekend. We played good defense, our pitchers shut them out and we did little things: we got bunts down, we cut off balls in the outfield, we kept them out of scoring position. Those little things are showing up to be big things as we get into the post season.”
The Argonauts have been doing it with a small roster — carrying only 15 players — and a very young team with only four seniors on board. Those seniors, however, have been instrumental both statistically and as the much needed leaders this young team needs. Centerfielder Emily Pettigrew for example is batting a team best .397 atop the order and doing all of those little thing Coach Paul preaches. Kalyn Chapman is simply doing anything they ask. She’s currently 18-5 in the circle, while also leading the team with six home runs.
“We finally had leaders in place this year,” Paul said. “They are all good in the roles they are in. Emily Pettigrew has been a great centerfielder, all while battling injuries early on. Kalyn, I didn’t bat her a lot last year. We knew she had some power, so finally this year we said let’s get her in there. She hits the ball hard, if she connects, it’s going to go somewhere.”
Freshmen Rachel Wright and Rhiannon Sassman have been a pleasant surprise this season, leading the charge of the many youngsters on UWF. Wright recently won both the GSC Freshman and Player of the Week awards, an honor Sassman achieved earlier in the season. Sassman is red-hot, currently on a 14-game hitting streak, having gone 4-for-8 over the big sweep of Delta State.
“[Sassman’s] her hardest critic. She gets so frustrated with herself, she seems like she’ll almost take herself out of the game in the cages before the game, and then she’ll come out and go 3-for-3,” Paul said with a laugh of her star freshman. “She’s a heck of a hitter. It was a tough spot for her, we brought her in and she ended up having to catch for us. We took her out of position even though she needed her reps at shortstop. Then we had an injury at third and she’s been absolutely phenomenal over there. I think it’s helped her with her hitting more knowing she’s more comfortable on defense now. She made big sacrifices for us early on in the year.”
Remarkably, this UWF squad has done their damage in the GSC as road warriors. 25 of their 47 games this season have been at opposing schools, and the Argonauts have come out 17-8, showing the moxie of this young squad.
“I’m very proud of what these girls have done on the road,” Paul said. “We were a little beat up in the middle of the season, but they persevered and they’ve come through and they are fighting hard.”
UWF still has a bit of a way to go in order to get back to that first NCAA tournament since 2010. Paul knew she had the pieces in place, and now they are certainly heading in the right direction. With seven teams in the GSC ranked regionally, it will be a daunting task, but that hasn’t slowed down the Argonauts one bit this season.
“It’s something we hoped for, but our expectations were high,” Paul said. “Last year we had to replace eight starters and had 11 new starters on the team, it was a lot to get done. This year we really attacked the culture in the fall and worked on being good teammates and it’s shown up big time. They’re getting it done and finding success.”
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