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Playing for something 'bigger than them,' Louisiana Tech softball players charge into NCAA Tournament

By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer
May 17, 2019, 1:02:58 PM EDT

On April 25, an EF3 tornado, packing peak winds up to 145 mph, made a direct hit on the northwestern Louisiana town of Ruston, killing two people and leaving extensive damage throughout the community of over 22,000.

Some of the worst damage was sustained on the campus of Louisiana Tech University. Several of the school’s athletic fields, including baseball, softball, tennis and soccer, were left in tatters and completely unplayable. Photos that emerged that day showed outfield fences blown apart, trees strewn all over the field, damage to seating areas and a demolished scoreboard.

Fortunately, no injuries were reported at the school.

Classes were canceled for several days as school officials assessed the damage, but it was immediately apparent, though , that the school’s softball and baseball teams would need to find an alternate location to wrap up their home schedules.

AccuWeather spoke to several members of the softball program ahead of its NCAA regional matchup on Friday.

Because the tornado occurred late in their season, the softball team only had to play one home series in a different location, about 40 miles away at the University of Louisiana Monroe (ULM). They’ve been practicing at a nearby high school, which has a field similar to the one they had on campus.

la tech softball player

Baylin Simon of Louisiana Tech looks for the ball while playing against Florida A&M during an NCAA softball game on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 in Gulf Shores, Ala. Louisiana Tech beat Florida A&M 9-1. (AP Photo/ Dan Anderson )

The disruption to their season came at a time when focus and preparation is at the utmost importance with conference and national tournaments approaching, as well as final exams.

Despite the adversity their community endured, the softball program has been able to maintain what was already a strong season as it gears up for what it hopes is a national championship run.

Head Coach Mark Montgomery told AccuWeather that the tornado’s damage was “overwhelming,” especially as they tried to plan for where to play and practice for their remaining schedule. While it hasn’t been the ideal scenario, they’re “making it work,” he said.

“We’re not gonna make any excuses, we just go out and do whatever we need to do to be the best team that we’re capable of being,” he said.

The Lady Techsters are 44-14 on the season (8-1 since the tornado) and are currently riding a five-game winning streak, which includes a Conference USA championship after they defeated Marshall University last weekend in Birmingham, Alabama. The team begins NCAA Tournament play on Friday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, against Texas Tech.

As the community continues to rebuild, Montgomery said that he thinks his team has been galvanized by the tornado’s impacts.

“I think we were a very good team before the tornado, but I do believe [the tornado] helps put things in perspective,” Montgomery said. “It makes you more thankful and appreciative of what you have. It makes you certainly want to play for something more than just yourself. The girls are playing not only for themselves, but now they’re playing for each other and then they’re playing for their school and their community and I feel like they want to represent that school and community at the highest possible level.”

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None of the players or coaches on the team were impacted by the storm, aside from the loss of power and tree damage to a couple of vehicles, according to Montgomery.

Going forward, Montgomery said it’s uncertain if their field will be ready for use by next year, since it’s currently scheduled to be bulldozed and a total rebuild is needed. He said school officials are still determining how to best rebuild the facilities and they still may need a temporary home for part of next season.

Redshirt Junior Catcher Addison Roark said the past several weeks have been “somewhat of a roller coaster.” The team started off a bit low and didn’t have the best initial practice after the tornado as everything was still sinking in and they were trying to process what would come next.

“That really just gave us another reason to wanna not play for ourselves, but play for something bigger than us and I think it really gave us an extra nudge in the right direction, especially we need it going into postseason,” Roark said.

Like her coach, Roark emphasized that the team was already good, but the situation pushed them to become even more successful.

“We know we’re a dominant team and we’re good, we’re good at what we do,” she said.

She said the team is grateful to have practice at the nearby high school so they could feel at home and feel Ruston supporting them.

“We get out here and we grind every day and we still put in the work that we need to put in,” Roark said.

Montgomery praised the way the Ruston and university communities have worked together to help clean up and remove damage to start moving in the right direction. About two days after the storm there were about 1,000 people helping clear debris on the athletic fields.

“The community really came together to do as much as they could just to get us moving in the right direction and the university was right there side-by-side with the community so it’s been a really kind of family effort to get this university and community back to full strength,” he said.

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