CHARLESTON, S.C. - Four years ago, a group of athletes from across the nation came to Charleston Southern with two primary goals: winning the Big South Championship and making an statement in the NCAA Tournament.
The first goal was accomplished this past weekend as seniors Ari Tedesco, Stephanie Sbardella, Lizzy Olmstead and Hayes Holdsworth celebrated on Sunday afternoon at the CCU Softball Field following Charleston Southern's 3-1 win over top-seed and tournament favorite Coastal Carolina.
However, when the celebration quelled and the team began to refocus on this week's NCAA Regional Tournament, the seniors knew although one of their goals had been reached; it was not enough. The Buccaneers, led by their senior quartet, are ready to make the next step toward their goals as CSU prepares to face off against one of the premier programs in the nation tonight in No. 10 Tennessee at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium. First pitch between the Bucs and the Lady Vols is set for 6 p.m.
"These four seniors have meant a great deal to this program," commented CSU head coach Shane Winkler on the quartet's impact on the Buccaneers' softball team. "They've seen the growth the program has had during their time; whether it's been the success on the field with the 33 win season in 2012 and now the Big South Championship and NCAA Regional berth. They've seen the growth in the facilities and the way we've been able to recruit even better classes since they've gotten here. A lot of that success has been due to the hard work and dedication they've had in growing the program since day one."
Starting at the Beginning
Four years ago, head coach Shane Winkler knew the Buccaneers were a few pieces away from a potential championship winning squad and was looking for the right pieces to fill the gaps. He found those pieces in a strong class of freshmen that grew up during their time with CSU in leading the Bucs to their second Big South Championship.
"We recruited that class really to add depth and strength to our position players and to be difference makers," Winkler said about the strength of the class. "They're all athletic kids with Sbardella and Holdsworth having some power while Tedesco and Olmstead bringing a lot of speed. They were brought in to be difference makers for us and they have been in their time here."
Tedesco made the longest trip to come to Charleston Southern, crossing over 2,500 miles from Huntington Beach, Calif. She was discovered by the CSU coaching staff after her sophomore year of high school when a fellow teammate of hers was being recruited by the Buccaneers. After deciding to look into the Bucs and hearing about the positive experiences from her teammate, she reached out to Coach Winkler to join the CSU fold.
During her time with the Buccaneers, Tedesco has seen action in multiple positions with the Buccaneers, lining up at catcher and all three outfield positions for CSU. She has recorded career highlights including nearly 90 career hits and over 50 runs scored and 25 RBI during her time with the Bucs. Adept with her glove in multiple positions around the field, Tedesco is currently fifth all-time in the CSU fielding ranks with a .975 career fielding percentage.
Olmstead made the shortest trip to join the Buccaneers, traveling 400 miles north from Brooksville, Fla., to Charleston, S.C. She was discovered by the CSU Coaching Staff ironically when she was watching a game at Presbyterian College with her dad, and from talking with Coach Winkler, she went to a camp at Charleston Southern and joined the Bucs soon after.
This past season, Olmstead was one of the top batters in the Charleston Southern lineup, coming on strong at the end of the season to lead the Bucs with a .350 batting average in the regular season in earning 2014 Big South All-Conference Honorable Mention honors. Olmstead has seen action in over 165 career games with the Bucs and the fleet-footed senior is currently in the top 10 all-time in the CSU ranks in stolen bases.
Stephanie Sbardella found out about Charleston Southern by way of former teammate and CSU alum Kristin Kelleher as she played under Kristin's dad in Fairfax Station, Va. After attending a camp at CSU, Coach Winkler followed her to several tournaments, witnessing to the powerful arm and bat that has made its mark in the Bucs' record books throughout the years before getting Sbardella to commit.
Over her time with the Buccaneers, Sbardella has consistently been one of the top hitters in program history, entering the weekend sitting in the top 10 in the Charleston Southern career record books in multiple offensive categories including batting average, at-bats, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, runs, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, total bases and games played. Sbardella has played in 225 career games, sitting fifth all-time in the category for the Buccaneers. She has also lined up all over the field for the Bucs, seeing time at all three outfield positions and both corner infielder spots, earning 2013 Big South All-Conference Second Team honors at third base.
Hayes Holdsworth, a Wakefield, Va., native, had her heart set on attending and playing for James Madison, but when plans fell through, the outfielder was left looking for a team to take her in. That team was Charleston Southern following a folder coming in the mail from the Buccaneers. After coming in for a camp, and being encouraged with what she had seen, Holdsworth credits coming to Charleston Southern as one of the best decisions that she has made in her life.
During her time with the Bucs, she has lined up all over the field, even seeing time inside the circle in her sophomore and junior seasons in stepping up when injuries depleted the CSU roster. Holdsworth is nearing 200 career games in the CSU blue and gold and has six home runs to her totals, including a pair of shots this season against Maryland-Eastern Shore in the Buccaneers 2014 season opener, as well as a solo shot in CSU's Big South opening series against Winthrop.
Four Years of Friendship
With nine freshmen on the 2014 Charleston Southern roster, Winkler knew that the Buccaneers were going to need strong leadership to keep the Buccaneers on track and bounce back from a difficult 2013 season which saw the Buccaneers record drop from 33-26 and a No. 3 seed in the Big South Tournament, to a 15-40 record and a No. 9 seed.
"[This season] we knew we were going to rely on freshmen a lot on the field and we really knew that we were going to count on the leadership this senior class was going to bring," Winkler said. "They're all high-quality kids and that just shows in the way they were able to help this program bounce back from last year. Last year was really tough on everybody and to see the way they bounced back is a testament to their character and their dedication and to this program and speaks volume of the type of kids that they are. They're great Christian athletes and they are exactly the type of kids that CSU tries to recruit."
The senior class of Tedesco, Holdsworth, Sbardella and Olmstead all knew that through their hard work and the relationships they had built with each other, they would be able to step up and guide the team throughout the year.
"Us four have done a lot of time together," Tedesco commented on the friendship and relationship of the seniors. "From pushing all four beds together into one room in the dorm, to living together, we are close and insanely lucky to have the four friends that we do. It's been the best four years and it wouldn't have been the same if it wasn't for the class and group that we have."
Olmstead chimed in, "They're the best friends that I've ever had and probably will ever have."
With mention on the different personalities the seniors possess, Holdsworth and Sbardella agreed that the Buccaneers seniors are very different on paper, but nonetheless, the bonds that the quartet have formed are quite strong.
"It's funny because we are all very different," Sbardella said about the group dynamic. "We all get along so well. We've sat in the dorms and enjoyed each other's company for hours back in our freshman year and made stupid videos that now we look back at and wonder what we were doing. Everything that we've been through with conditioning and everything, we've always there for each other through good and bad, and wouldn't want it to be any other way."
Holdsworth continued, "It's like a cool relationship we all have. All four of us are so completely different. If people first met us, they'd be like how could we be friends? We all come from different areas and different, but the bond the four of us have had over the four years has been special and a blessing just because we've always had each other no matter what. It's been very great and such a blessing to have that and a great bond in that relationship."
Winning the Championship and Getting the Ring
After feeling the disappoint of not making it back to the Championship Game last season, the four seniors made sure that did not happen for the second consecutive season with all four contributing in big ways throughout the tournament.
Olmstead served as Charleston Southern's starting left fielder over the first two games of the tournament weekend, providing speed and timely defense to the CSU lineup. Holdsworth took over in left field for the final two games, racing down the left field line for a catch to rob an extra base hit in the Championship Game, while drilling an RBI double to right centerfield against Longwood to propel the Bucs to the Championship Game.
Sbardella, a 2014 Big South Conference All-Tournament team selection, hit .400 for the weekend and connected on a towering solo home run in the first inning against Presbyterian to spark the CSU offense past the Blue Hose. She also finished with a team-high four runs scored on the weekend. Tedesco, meanwhile, came up with arguably the biggest hit of her career when she knocked a two-out single through the right side of the infield in the top of the fourth inning, scoring Brittany McPherson for what turned out to be the game-winning run against Coastal Carolina, sending CSU dancing into the NCAA Tournament.
"From the first inning of the first game, we knew that we had an opportunity to take it," Tedesco said on the tournament win. "Even though we had a really bad season and didn't finish nearly where we wanted to; it didn't matter. Going into the tournament, Coach told us that we were going to win and gave us motivation to realize that we could do so much more than that. Winning the entire thing was crazy! Hayes and I grabbed each other coming in from the outfield, hugging and looking at each other with amazement. The fact that we were able to play for the other girls too, and the seniors from 2012 and 2013 were texting us and telling us this was our time and gave us motivation and drive to win."
"It was a good feeling," Olmstead said about winning the Big South Tournament. "This was a lot different from the first time we played back in 2012. It was so right and felt right this time. Everything seemed to work out in our favor and we played hard and it all worked out."
For some of the seniors, the impact is still being felt nearly one week later as the Bucs settle in for the NCAA Regional Tournament.
"It's still not real to me yet, honestly," Holdsworth said. "People ask me about that and it's still mind-boggling. It just shows God's greatness and that He might have a different plan for us and the team. We may not have the greatest season and last year was hard, but a huge lesson was learned, especially for us four seniors. We all wanted to win so bad, and then when it actually happened, it was just like 'Wow, this is amazing!' It just shows that God's plan is so amazing. Words can't describe and it's just a great opportunity for the school and for the seniors and for the kids who just came in to start this way."
Sbardella continued, "Obviously it's been all of our dreams to get a ring since we were little and I've always wanted to go to college and get that ring and get to the NCAA Tournament. It's just unreal. It was awesome and it was a team effort. You can't really pin the wins all on one person. All these different things the best part of it all was that everyone did their part and it was awesome."
NCAA Regionals and the Unfinished Job Ahead
The Buccaneers face a familiar foe in the University of Tennessee tomorrow evening as Charleston Southern takes on Tennessee for the second time in consecutive seasons after the Volunteers played in the Buccaneer Invitational last season at the CSU Softball Field.
The Volunteers won both games against the Buccaneers in the tournament, defeating CSU 8-1 in the opener and 10-3 in the tournament finale, but Charleston Southern rallied in both games against the Lady Vols, not backing down against one of the premier programs in the country.
The Buccaneers and the Lady Vols, as well as their regional bracket counterparts Virginia Tech and Lipscomb make up four of just 64 teams that remain in action in the postseason out of the 293 programs that began the 2014 season with their eyes on the Women's College World Series.
"It's honestly an unreal feeling," Sbardella said about the NCAA Tournament berth. "I'm friends with people on Instagram with people from Georgia and Kentucky and have seen all these people posting throwback pictures of previous tournament and speaking about how unreal the experience is. To just be one of these people is just unreal. Not everyone can reach this point. Everyone goes into it wanted to reach this, but we did and it's just a great feeling, it's crazy."
Holdsworth added, "Just being here unto itself is an awesome opportunity. As a kid, this is stuff that you dream of in making it to the Regionals and watching the Women's College World Series and Regional Tournament. For the team, it's an awesome learning experience and opportunity to knock off teams that are more well-known than us. It's a huge thing for us to have this opportunity and represent ourselves and our school. It's very exciting!"
With the regional berth in hand though, the Buccaneers seniors realize that though they have achieved this milestone, their work is still not complete.
"I've already made a lot of memories this weekend and just to make it was a huge accomplishment," Olmstead closed out with on the weekend's action ahead. "We're here to prove something for our program and to show who we are and enjoy the moment. We're each other's biggest fans out there and we just want to continue carrying on to this weekend."
Tedesco agreed, "Coach has said we're not going into this for the experience. This is something that we are completely capable of taking on and winning. Any given day, any one of these teams can win or lose. Player to player, if we fight and take the momentum that we had last weekend into this weekend, anything can happen. Right now, all teams; we're all the same. I just hope that we can take in the different environment and go out as the underdog and play like we're able to do."