National Championship Reunion Ignites 2014 Softball Season

UABSPORTS.COM Head Coach Beth Keylon-Randolph
UABSPORTS.COM
Head Coach Beth Keylon-Randolph
UABSPORTS.COM

Feb. 4, 2014

Many college softball seasons begin with teams, players and coaches putting past failures and shortcomings behind them and positively reinforce those histories with daydreams illustrating every vivid detail of what utopia looks like once the final out of the upcoming year is recorded.

For East Carolina second-year head coach Beth Keylon-Randolph, assistant coach Steve Jaecks, junior transfer Andie Johnson and senior transfer Shelby Johnson, the 2014 season will begin in their old softball utopia, and it's only old because it became a real place they've already been. That location is St. George, Utah, where the Pirates will compete in the Red Desert Classic, Feb. 7-9.

But what's so significant about St. George? It's not even the capital city of the state of Utah. That's Salt Lake City which is approximately a five-hour car drive away. The fact of the matter is it's the exact site where Keylon-Randolph, Jaecks and both Johnsons won the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Championship at Chattanooga State in 2012, and the last time all four were on the same field together.

"It brings a smile to my face just thinking about going back there," Keylon-Randolph said. "We're excited and Andie, Shelby, Coach Jaecks and I will have a little bit of a reliving and enjoyment of being there."

While junior college softball doesn't possess the same number of teams or level of talent as NCAA Division I across the board, that doesn't take anything away from the importance or significance for anyone on that team, including Shelby Johnson.

"After winning, we felt like we accomplished everything that we ever wanted to," Shelby said. "It didn't matter if it was junior college or any other level because you're still going to have the same feeling."

Unfortunately, that championship was won when Shelby and Andie were sophomores at Chattanooga State, and junior colleges limit players to just two years of competition. As soon as the trophy-raising and championship celebration commenced, the reality was that some other things came to an end.

"I remember being in the hotel room after we won [the national championship] and we kind of looked around like, `What do we do now?'" Andie said. "Our decisions were kind of already made, and that was when everything started to set in and we realized it was over."

Shelby accepted a scholarship offer from Texas Tech in the Big 12 Conference, and Andie stayed closer to home and packed her bags for Tennessee Tech. The two might share the same last name, but they're not sisters. If their physical appearances were masked, personalities were compared and their stories were told, one might still question if they really weren't related.

"We didn't know each other until college," Shelby said. "We played against each other in travel ball, but our teams didn't like one another. We started becoming closer during sophomore year, and within a year, we got closer than sisters. If people saw us and how close we are, they would think we've known each other since we were little. We're just alike. We think all the same things."

The history of the relationship is mutual, and Andie went on to explain exactly how tight the friendship actually was, despite going different directions after the national championship victory.

"We weren't as close our freshman year as we were our sophomore year at Chattanooga State, but I feel like we never went our separate ways," Andie said. "When Shelby was at Texas Tech, we talked on the phone for [about] four hours per day."

If 20-30 hours per week on the phone doesn't make one roll their eyes and chuckle, their other antics surely will draw out that reaction.

"We acted like we were at the same school," Shelby said. "We would send each other things like t-shirts that said `TTU' and kept joking that they sent one of us to the wrong Tech."

Over the course of their first year apart, Andie did not step on the field for the Golden Eagles during the 2013 season and did not exhaust any athletic eligibility. Shelby had an outstanding season as the leadoff hitter for the Red Raiders, hitting .331, with 24 RBI and a team-high 19 stolen bases.

Andie and Shelby were already practicing and taking classes at their new schools when Keylon-Randolph accepted the job at East Carolina in October 2012. It was during this year apart that Andie and Shelby realized they could reunite and play together again for the coach who taught them so much if they just transferred to ECU, and that's exactly what they did. The coaching staff at ECU was ecstatic when they got the news.

"It's really a dream come true for me as a coach," Keylon-Randolph said. "They've both been winners, won championships and know what I expect. They know how to take me as a coach when I push and challenge them."

Keylon-Randolph's reasoning behind her excitement of the reunion is duly noted. She put so much effort into developing and utilizing Andie and Shelby that it was practically destiny that she would get to watch them start and finish their college careers under her tutelage.

"Andie is one of those kids who isn't going to be a 15-home run or .500 hitter, but she's always going to find a way to help you win," Keylon-Randolph said. "She's a fighter and she can't stand to lose. I like having that kind of personality on my team."

She might not need Andie to be the offensive powerhouse because she brings so many other intangibles to the winning formula, and also because those attributes complement Shelby's offensive repertoire perfectly.

"She's a table-setter and she's so talented," Keylon-Randolph said of Shelby. "I can remember coming home some nights and saying to Coach [Steve] Jaecks, `Man, Shelby didn't hit well today,' and he would say, `Beth, she went 4-for-5.'She always finds a way to get on base. I hate that we only have her for one more year, but I sure am glad she's here now."

Shelby isn't concerned about only having one year to make a difference, and already has a goal set out for herself and the team during her brief stint.

"I'd like to make it farther than anyone in the community thinks we can," Shelby said. "Even if I'm only here for one year, if we do great, more people will believe in us even after I'm gone."

With six seniors and a redshirt junior who contributed to a Conference USA championship as freshmen in 2011 on the Pirates' roster for 2014, the arrival of the Johnsons gives the team even more depth and experience heading into the season. It is anticipated that Andie and Shelby will bring insight, discipline and knowledge of the staff's expectations to bolster the squad's camaraderie.

"I definitely expect them to step up because they've been there and they've played on a big stage," Keylon-Randolph stated. "I hope the seniors who have won a conference championship can take their leadership and combine that experience with Andie and Shelby's national championship experience. If we can do that, as a team, it's going to make us 10 times harder to beat."

As transfers, sometimes the verbal leadership and communication can be a difficult barrier to cross with veteran players on the team, but each group has been receptive since day one in an attempt to strengthen the bond, knowing the team goals are the same.

"I think we all clicked pretty fast," Shelby said. "For us, we're new girls and had to figure everything out and I feel like the girls who have been here helped the new players get comfortable."

Andie chimed in with what had to be the easiest ice-breaker of all for one of the new faces on the team by stating what she and Shelby had in common with the veteran players.

"We felt like we were the older girls because while we were learning from them, they were learning from us," Andie said. "We've all played for the same coaches before."

Although the old band from Chattanooga State is reunited, but the focus for the season-opening game against Grand Canyon University will not be on where they've been, but rather where they're going with East Carolina.

"I see so much more that I want with the team I have now," Keylon-Randolph said. "I want this team to enjoy championships and I want to be a part of it with them."