Rutgers Softball: Youth, Experience and Servant Leadership
By Matthew J. Simini
The Rutgers softball team is coming off one of its best seasons in recent years. The Scarlet Knights went 30-26 last season, which was their fourth 30-win season in program history and first in head coach Jay Nelson’s tenure. Nelson’s hard work is paying off, as his team is consistently getting better every year.
This season is expected be another successful one. The team’s core group is returning, which includes its top-three hitters – senior Loren Williams (Los Angeles, Calif.), senior Alexis Durando (Oakland, N.J.) and sophomore Chandler Howard (Wilmington, Del.) – its top-two pitchers – junior Alyssa Landrith (Vacaville, Calif.) and sophomore Dresden Maddox (Kennesaw, Ga.) – as well as six starters and 11 letterwinners. Despite returning key players, the Scarlet Knights are still a very young team and welcome nine newcomers, including eight freshman and one sophomore transfer.
Among RU’s senior class are two are top performers. Williams and Durando led the team in hitting last year. Williams hit .315 with six homeruns, 25 RBI’s and 18 stolen bases, while Durando hit .304 with six home runs and 34 RBIs. Although the team has a lot of youth, Durando thinks that the freshmen can make an immediate impact.
“I think the most important thing with having such a young team is to get people acclimated,” Durando said. “We came off such a strong season last year. We did not make the conference tournament, which was upsetting for us, but we did have a 30-win season. So the most important thing about having young kids is that we have to get them acclimated to the way we do things and I think that they have adjusted very well.”
Durando is heading into her senior year focused and understands that she has developed her strength and conditioning as much as possible. At this point, the mental aspect of the game is the main concern.
“I think personally when you’re transitioning between your freshman and sophomore year you make huge gains,” said the Oakland, N.J., native. “Now we have faced the facts; we are not going to make these huge gains every year. So for me, it’s mental. It is just as much mental as it is physical. It’s about getting comfortable, getting into a groove and what works well for you.”
Although Durando and Williams are seniors on the team, they are not captains. In fact, no one on the team holds the title of “captain.” Nelson instead instills a servant leadership style where captains do not exist and everyone has an equal chance to both lead and serve the team.
“For as long as I’ve been coaching – I’ve been coaching for a long time – I have seen that the captain situation is very tricky because people are hurt when they are not picked as a captain,” Nelson said. “I think it creates more problems. Servant leadership gives a chance for everybody to be a leader.
“If you are a captain, then you have to be on all the time. Every day they have to be at the top of their game. That is what is expected of them. Sometimes there are days where they have a hard day, and everyone looks at the captain like ‘What’s wrong?’ You need people to pick them up and it worked well last year and now we have good leaders. They are natural leaders.”
Nelson is an experienced coach who has established his philosophies over the past eight years. He has seen his teams improve both mentally and physically.
“We are much more athletic,” Nelson said. “Our base running is much better. We have players that are in better condition. Another thing that I have seen is that we have a team that will work together. When I first took over, there were fragments of players fighting to take over leadership. So they kind of banged heads.”
Williams agrees that the team gets along with each other very well. Nelson’s philosophies influence his team in a positive way and Williams does not feel threatened by the thought of an underclassman being a leader.
“I basically think it’s that he doesn’t want it to be a thing where certain people feel like they can’t step into a leadership role,” Williams said. “He basically wants to give everyone a chance to be a leader and serve as well. It is not like a hierarchy type thing, he wants everyone to feel like they can step up, and be a leader. If you feel like something needs to be said or someone needs to be confronted about an issue, anyone can do it; it is not just the juniors or seniors on the team. Anyone can step up to that role.”
Williams has already cracked the record books, but she is on the cusp of even more accomplishments. The veteran is 71 hits shy of 200 for her career, which would make her only the third player in RU softball history to reach that plateau.
She recorded 62 hits last year, which tied for third on the single-season list, and is nine home runs shy of reaching 20 and tying for third all-time. If she records the same number of at-bats this season as she did last year, she will leave RU first all-time in that category. The Crenshaw HS (Calif.) product is nine stolen bases shy of tying for third all-time and two attempts shy of tying for third all-time.
Entering her final season “On the Banks,” Williams looks to not only lead with her experience, but by example on the field.