Softball Stars Honor Late NCTC Players

North Central Texas College has never produced any big names in softball. In fact, NCTC’s softball team, of the National Junior College Athletic Association, doesn’t frequently play on television and has never won a national championship.

(Courtesy of the Star-Telegram)

(Courtesy of the Star-Telegram)

But, when NCTC players Brooke Deckard, Jaiden Pelton, Meagan Richardson, and Katelynn Woodlee tragically lost their lives after an 18-wheeler collided with the team’s bus following a fall ball game in September, the entire softball world was shaken. A dozen other players, as well as the team’s head coach, were also injured in the crash.

That’s why some of the sport’s biggest names were honorary Lions on Saturday at this year’s annual NCTC Softball Alumni Day.

The Gainesville, Texas community college hosted Olympic medalists Jennie Finch, Danielle Lawrie, and Lauren Lappin, who served as guest coaches at Alumni Day, while Division I All-Americans Amanda Scarborough, Taylor Hoagland, and Lauren Chamberlain also attended the event.

Chamberlain
, a current senior at the University of Oklahoma and arguably the sport’s most popular active star, was especially moved by the tragedy in September, and thus, aspired to help the NCTC team in any way she could.

“I immediately thought, what if that was my team,” the Sooner first baseman said. “It hit me hard.”

For former Olympic teammates Jennie Finch and Lauren Lappin, hundreds of miles of travel couldn’t keep them from showing support for NCTC’s softball family.

“This community has been an inspiration to the entire softball community across the country and we just hope that we can show any support that we can to the people here,” said Lappin, a Stanford standout from 2003-2006.

“This game is so much bigger than the wins, losses, and championships,” former Team USA-ace Jennie Finch disclosed. “It’s about the relationships and just showing support for the organization.”

Similarly, Danielle Lawrie, the 2009 and 2010 National Softball Player of the Year at the University of Washington, was happy to make the trip to Texas to honor the late athletes and provide support for the heartbroken community.

“It was no hesitation for me,” Lawrie said. “With the softball community, you feel really connected, you know, a special bond exists.”

This bond, shared between some of the sport’s greatest talents of all-time and junior college players alike, provided healing and unifying powers in the midst of great sadness this past weekend at NCTC.

“Everybody rallying around each other, it’s really inspiring,” said Amanda Scarborough, a two-time All-American at Texas A&M. “It’s not just inspiring to Texas. It’s not just inspiring to Dallas. It’s inspiring to the entire softball community across the country.”

Saturday’s Alumni Day included two exhibition games involving NCTC players from the past 15 years, a home run derby featuring the honorary Lions for a day, and a silent auction. All proceeds from the event went to the NCTC Angels in the Infield Scholarship Fund honoring Deckard, Pelton, Richardson, and Woodlee.

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Lessons Learned in Softball Propel Broadcasting Success

Smith and Mendoza in the booth during the Women's College World Series. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Michele Smith and Jessica Mendoza. (Courtesy of ESPN)

In a fast-moving sport like college softball, where nuances such as the grip of a pitch, path of a swing, or angle taken to a batted ball can determine a game’s outcome, it is easy for inexperienced eyes to miss the finer details of the game.

For college softball broadcasters Michele Smith, Jessica Mendoza, Amanda Scarborough, and Kayla Braud, picking up on the nuances of the game is second nature. Their high-level softball experiences, at the Division I collegiate level, internationally, and professionally, have been invaluable assets in their careers behind the mic. These former softball stars turned broadcasters serve as the storytellers and sense-makers of many of the ESPN college softball broadcasts during the spring season.

Despite playing in different decades, on dissimilar teams, at varied positions, this quartet of All-Americans is connected by their shared ability to bridge the gaps of understanding for softball fans of all ages and experiences. Their unparalleled first-hand experiences in the sport allow viewers the opportunity to see the game beyond the bat and ball.

In making the transition from the playing field to the broadcasting booth, these women have similarly incorporated lessons learned on the softball diamond into their professional careers on television.

“I think the processes involved in being a successful broadcaster are similar to being an athlete,” said two-time Olympic gold medal winning pitcher Michele Smith. “You’re constantly learning and constantly critiquing yourself.”

Smith, ESPN’s lead color commentator for women’s college softball and one of the most familiar faces in the sport, recently won the 2014 Bill Teegins Excellence in Sportscasting Award. She says the secret to her successful transition from the playing field to the booth has been her ability to approach broadcasts much like she did the pitching circle: with precision and attention to detail.

“When I was playing, I would go back and look at tape of myself to see how my pitches worked and what batters’ approaches against me were,” the two-time All-American at Oklahoma State said. “It’s the same thing with broadcasting, I will go back and listen to my tapes and think of different ways to say the same things to avoid sounding redundant and give my broadcasts as much color as possible.”

Amanda Scarborough during an ESPN broadcast. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Amanda Scarborough. (Courtesy of ESPN)

For Smith, who became the first female analyst to call a Major League Baseball game in 2012, the transition to the booth involved a great amount of learning on the fly and studying of other analysts.

“I had no formal education in media or communications, so when I first started broadcasting, it was like learning a whole new language,” Smith recalled. “There is so much that goes into broadcasting. Whether it’s knowing the terminology, realizing how broadcasts work, or understanding all of the jobs involved in a single broadcast.”

Much like being a student of the game of softball, Smith has been a student of the craft of broadcasting since her on-camera career began in 1994.

“For me, it’s been a lot of studying, asking for advice from people in the industry, listening to other analysts, talking to them about what they think is relevant, and trying to tweak all of these things to add them into my own game plan,” the eight-time Japan Professional League MVP stated candidly.

Like Smith, Jessica Mendoza, a four-time All-American at Stanford, uses similar tactics in her broadcasting career as she did on the softball diamond.

“I find the pressure you feel in big moments as a player is very similar to the pressure and adrenaline when you are live on air in front of millions when that red light goes on,” the ESPN analyst and reporter revealed. “I crave and love that challenge and knowing it is all or nothing, similar to that one pitch or opportunity you get as a player.”

Mendoza’s ability to perform gracefully under pressure, much like she did while establishing herself as one of the best hitters in the history of the sport, has allowed her to expand her broadcasting career beyond the white lines of the softball field. The Olympic gold and silver medalist is also a college football sideline reporter for ESPN, as well as the first woman to ever co-host Baseball Tonight.

Like the aforementioned Smith and Mendoza, Amanda Scarborough, a two-time All-American pitcher at Texas A&M, has carried over skills into her broadcasting career that were vital to her on-field success.

“In college,  I understood that the harder I worked outside of game day and in my own time, the better results I was going to get and the more confident I would be on the field,” the current ESPN and Longhorn Network softball analyst said. “So with broadcasting, I am big on preparation before going into a game I am commentating. Preparation is where my confidence comes from.”

Kayla Braud. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Kayla Braud. (Courtesy of ESPN)

The preparation that Scarborough still practices today, as well as the confidence she exudes in her broadcasts, have allowed her to expand her broadcasting repertoire, much like Mendoza. After four seasons of broadcasting college softball, Scarborough began covering men’s and women’s college basketball, as well as college football, as a sideline reporter for the Longhorn Network in 2013.

In learning from those who came before her, broadcasting newcomer Kayla Braud, a three-time All-American and 2012 National Champion at Alabama, similarly draws from her college softball experiences to propel her young broadcasting career.

“I constantly look back on my softball experiences at Alabama, especially overcoming adversity and dealing with failure,” the 2013 Senior CLASS Award winner said. “I know that when things aren’t going as smoothly as planned when I’m calling a game, I can adjust. I don’t get too rattled in pressure situations on the job because softball has already put me in tons of pressure situations that I’ve been able to handle just fine.”

While the transition from the diamond to the booth comes with its fair share of adjustments, it is a struggle that parallels what nearly all softball players encounter at some point during their playing days.

“The transition to broadcasting is like learning a new position and a new way of thinking about the game you already know so well,” Scarborough said. “Just like in the game of softball, the older you get and the more reps you receive, the more the game slows down and you become comfortable with your ability to express your thoughts in order to perform your best.”

For Smith, Mendoza, Scarborough, and Braud, the ability to make adjustments and perform at their best has created quite the recipe for success, both on the field and in the booth.