Brad Irwin thought the worst was behind him after his first season as East Tennessee State’s softball coach ended with a 15-33 record.
Turns out, there was room for things to get worse.
The Lady Bucs just finished an 11-38 campaign last weekend that saw them lose 22 of their last 23 games. They were 1-17 in the Atlantic Sun Conference, four games behind the ninth-place team.
For Irwin, who came from Southern Conference power Chattanooga, where he once worked for Ralph and Karen Weekly, the current Tennessee coaches, it has been something of a nightmare start.
“I’ve always heard coaches talk about laying in bed awake at night, and I never really understood it until this year,” he said Wednesday. “Last year bothered me, but it wasn’t the same. I thought we were going to be a lot better this year.
“Where I have failed is I have not changed the culture yet of knowing how to win. We don’t go out and try not to lose, but some days it just seems like losing is OK. That’s not what I’m about.”
The program has had only one winning season in its 12 years, and Irwin hopes to turn things around by bringing in up to nine new players for next season. The team graduated four seniors.
“We told the returning players they better be ready for next year,” said Irwin. “There’s going to be competition for every spot, and don’t be surprised when you get here and there’s a lot of additional kids trying to get on the field.”
The new recruiting class starts with Katy Jordan, a junior-college pitcher from Darton College in Albany, Ga. Irwin believes she can become dominant in the circle.
“She had somewhere in the neighborhood of 239 strikeouts in 180 innings this season,” he said. “You gotta have a front-line pitcher that can carry you, and we just haven’t had one. That’s where it all starts.
“Believe it or not, we were better offensively for most of this season. But our team ERA was between 4 and 5, and a front-line pitcher should be around 1. You can’t try to manufacture a run when you need six.”
The Lady Bucs have work to do just to become competitive in their conference. They are 4-34 over the last two seasons and gave up hope of making the A-Sun tournament weeks ahead of time.
There were a few bright spots this season, starting with freshman first baseman Casey Horner. She led the team in batting average (.316), homers (7) and runs batted in (24).
“She’s a competitor and can help change the culture I talked about,” said Irwin. “When we got into conference play, she kind of leveled out a little bit and hit the wall like freshmen do. We need to get some power to go around her, too. We didn’t protect her very well.”
Junior Tara Hartnett was the team’s best hitter over the last six weeks and finished with a .315 average. Alex Everett hit .299 and Annie Martin at .297.
The Lady Bucs had no players named to the first or second all-conference teams. Martin, a senior outfielder, was named to the all-academic team.
The ETSU baseball team hopes that next weekend’s series at Kennesaw State will mean something.
The Bucs (21-26, 7-14) are in ninth place in the A-Sun and three games out of sixth with six league games remaining. They host Stetson this weekend.
A couple of losses, combined with wins by Mercer and Belmont, could close them out of the tournament, which includes only the top six teams.
The Bucs were scheduled to play a non-conference game Wednesday night at Radford.
Former ETSU star Paul Hoilman set a team record with 17 home runs in his first season of professional baseball at Boise last year.
This spring the Johnson City native is back at it in Peoria, Ill. On Tuesday night he tied a record for the Class A Chiefs, a 30-year-old club affiliated with the Cubs, by extending his hitting streak to 21 games in a 7-2 victory over Quad Cities.
That is reportedly the longest active streak in professional baseball.
When bat meets ball, good things tend to happen for Hoilman. The big first baseman is hitting .303 for the season, with three homers, 12 doubles and 25 RBI. He also has 36 strikeouts in 109 at-bats.
Hoilman hit his second grand slam of the young season on Monday night, which tied a team record.
Another former Buc is finding success on the diamond a little more challenging these days.
Caleb Moore, who was a star catcher and closer at ETSU, just finished his first season of coaching at Happy Valley High School. The Warriors went 3-24, on the heels of a 2-27 season.
“It’s been an adventure for me, and an adjustment for me and the players,” said Moore, a Knoxville native who played minor-league ball in the Twins organization before running into arm trouble. “I’m holding them a lot more accountable than they’re used to. We started five freshmen, and the experience a lot of guys have gained is invaluable. They’re starting to grasp the whole concept.”
The new coach says he’s trying to play “National League baseball,” with a lot of offensive strategy. The long ball isn’t part of that strategy; the Warriors hit just one home run all season.
“Coming in we knew we didn’t have a lot of power hitters,” said Moore. “We’ve done a good job of working the count and taking pitches, but we’ve struck out way too much. You can’t steal first.”
Moore says he hasn’t been discouraged by all the losing.
“Trust me, there are a lot of sleepless nights,” he said, “but I’ve loved every minute of it. I like it here and don’t see myself leaving anytime soon.”
There was at least one familiar face among the six men arrested after an altercation described in a police report as “total chaos” in the early hours of April 29 at Buccaneer Ridge Apartments.
Duronal Monal was a star sprinter for the Bucs just a few years ago, sweeping the 100 and 200 at the Atlantic Sun Conference outdoor meet in 2009 and again in ‘10. He was named the meet’s most outstanding track performer as a senior.
Monal had an interesting backstory. He grew up as a promising wide receiver in Belle Glade, Fla., but saw his football career cut short by injury and turned to track. He was good enough to earn a scholarship to Middle Tennessee State, and then transferred to ETSU.
His mother was buried for days in the rubble of the massive Haiti earthquake in January 2010, but was pulled out alive and went back to Florida. She died four months later, and her son dedicated his last track victories to her.
Monal, 24, was arrested with five other men for reportedly forcing their way into an apartment and assaulting four women who lived there. Police found a loaded handgun in the trunk of a car used by the men.
Monal, cited as a resident of Orlando, Fla., was charged with aggravated burglary and assault.