HUNTINGTON — Somewhere in the Marshall University softball offices at Dot Hicks Field, there is a shiny necklace hanging up on the wall.
That Kelly green-clad chain served as an emblem of what Marshall’s team was all about during the 2020 season.
The necklace was known as the “Home Run Chain” — a fun way of interactivity and instant gratification for when players took the bright yellow softball over the fence.
“There were some teams last year who were Mizuno (equipment) teams that had a home run chain,” Marshall head coach Megan Smith said. “When we broke our record last year for home runs, Mizuno sent us a chain. We souped it up and made it green — put some stuff on it to make it look like our home run chain.”
For Marshall’s softball program in 2020, that chain made its appearance on many occasions — 48, to be exact. Marshall’s softball program led the NCAA in home runs per game with 1.92 each of its 25 outings in 2020.
On average, Marshall put that chain to use more than any team in the country, which made for a fun dugout for Smith and her team.
“This game is about having fun,” Smith said following a doubleheader sweep of Akron early in the season. “They’ve had fun playing it their whole lives and I think sometimes you get to college and you put too much pressure on it and think it’s something different than it is.
“It’s still the game you love and we want them to have fun. Definitely, that chain, it’s fun. They get into it and they love it.”
Unfortunately for the Thundering Herd, the fun came to an end early in 2020 — one of the many sports casualties caused by the coronavirus outbreak, which effectively shut down collegiate sports on March 12. It was a disappointing end to a year in which the Herd was finding its groove behind its offensive output. The team finished with an 18-7 record.
From an offensive standpoint, the final game of the season might have been one of the team’s more impressive performances, even though it came in a loss. Marshall traveled to take on No. 11 Kentucky on March 11 in what was supposed to be a non-conference tune-up prior to the opening of Conference USA action.
At the time, no one knew it would be the season’s final game, but the Herd brought out its bats as if everything was on the line.
Marshall slugged five home runs in the contest, jumping to a 15-4 lead before the national powerhouse Wildcats roared back with 12 straight runs to earn a 16-15 win in a matchup of two of the nation’s top offensive teams.
While the game ended as a loss for the Herd, it showed the explosive power throughout the Marshall lineup. Saige Pye and Sierra Huerta each hit grand slams, and Pye added another homer and drove in seven runs.
Oddly enough, it was the second consecutive game that Marshall had a player achieve a two-home run, seven-RBI performance, as Mya Stevenson had done the same in a 9-1 win over Rutgers just three days prior.
In terms of power, it was Stevenson who led the way for the Herd — and the nation — with 12 home runs on the season.
Stevenson tied for top honors in the NCAA with Charlotte’s Bailey Vannoy and Villanova’s Paige Rauch, but did so in two fewer games than the others, making her the national leader in home runs per game. The sophomore also was tied for second nationally in RBI with 36.
Stevenson’s power led a consistent Marshall lineup that was the only team to rank in the top five nationally in both batting average (.357, fifth) and home runs per game (1.92, first).
Kentucky and James Madison achieved top-10 status in both categories, making Marshall’s feat that much more impressive.
Earlier this season, Smith said watching the improvements from 2019 to 2020 showed her team’s growth.
“Last year, we were a home run-hitting team, but we didn’t hit for average,” Smith said. “This year, we’re in the top five in the country in batting average and home runs. That’s huge. That means we are progressing as an offense.”
Marshall’s offensive balance would have been fun to see against some strong pitching rotations within Conference USA, but that chance never came to fruition with the season halted just two days before the Herd was set to host FIU at Dot Hicks Field in the C-USA opener.
Marshall had five players who hit at least five home runs and five players batting at least .350. Pye, Stevenson, Aly Harrell and Sierra Huerta were four who were in each category with Harrell arguably being the team’s top power threat, while Huerta was top 15 nationally with nine home runs.
To put it in perspective, Marshall’s 2019 team played less than half of its season and the 48 home runs were still the third most in a single season in program history.
Marshall’s team batting average (.357), slugging percentage (.643), on base percentage (.440) and runs scored per game (7.56) top the team’s all-time single-season marks, as does the team’s per-game average for RBI, hits, doubles and walks.
With the NCAA having committed to giving spring sports athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the cancellation of their 2020 seasons, the expectation is that Marshall’s offense will return bigger and better than ever in 2021. Until that time, Smith and the Herd will polish up two things: their softball skills and the home run chain.
The hope is that both remain in pristine condition the next time the team takes the field.