Transition Year Ahead for Auburn Softball After Missing Another Women’s College World Series
Next softball season, Auburn Coach Mickey Dean will be fielding a team made up mostly of players he recruited (Photo:Cat Wofford/Auburn Athletics)
After years of failing to bring home the Women’s College World Series Championship, the Pac-12 finally broke through to recapture the title that the conference once dominated. UCLA took down Oklahoma, the most stable and elite program in the country. The SEC wasn’t represented in the finals for a second year as Alabama and Florida couldn’t escape each other or Oklahoma.
The two SEC teams had to play in an elimination game in the WCWS. Alabama was seeded eighth and had to start the WCWS against Oklahoma, the overall one seed. Florida and Oklahoma State joined the fray with OSU coming out on top.
On the other side of the bracket, there were three Pac-12 teams plus out-gunned Minnesota, assuring the Pac-12 that least one team would make it to Oklahoma City. It was certainly odd to see Alabama and Florida ranked so low as Alabama was probably the second best team in the country, if not the best, with Oklahoma’s famous win streak buoying its ranking. Florida’s squad had just won the SEC tournament. Yet both were low seeds, Alabama played Oklahoma without success, and UCLA pulled it off by beating the Sooners to end another terrific year of softball.
Not in the discussion for the second time in two years were the Auburn Tigers. The Tigers in their second year under coach Mickey Dean didn’t make it out of regionals. Three years ago, just the thought of not hosting a regional would have been preposterous, much less getting sent home in the first round of the tournament at some other team’s place. Yet, it happened.
James Madison, the team that Dean left for the Plains, lost in its Super Regional to the eventual National Champions, the UCLA Bruins. JMU dropped the deciding game 2–0. Although Florida State may be the the first National Champion not to make it back to Oklahoma City, it is Auburn’s program that has slid more than any other top-flight program. At least the Seminoles hosted a Super Regional before being shocked by Oklahoma State.
By season’s end, Auburn softball fans were in fairly heated debate over what was happening and why. There are many valid points and concerns about Auburn’s current woes.
The conversation should start with the turmoil left by the previous coaching staff. While the full story has never told and likely never will be, the result was a regime change in the coaching staff during a critical year. Coach Clint Myers was entering, essentially, his first year with players whom he recruited and developed in 2016–2017. That team would likely have stabilized the program for years to come. Instead, the coaching staff was dismissed, players left, and Mickey Dean and Eddie Kettelhut entered the picture. The rest is history.
Some details need to be addressed. Yes, Auburn had injuries to critical players. Makayla Martin was easily one of the better pitchers in the country and breaking her hand halfway through the season hurt a lot. Losing Ashlee Swindle in regional play hurt as did losing shortstop Taylon Snow to a torn rotator cuff or labrum while diving for a fly ball. All surely contributed to Auburn’s quick exit from the tournament, but the program was showing massive cracks in its foundation long before then.
Hitting in 2017–2018 wasn’t very good and continued the downward slide of Myers’ last year in virtually every category. In the last month of this season, there probably wasn’t a worse hitting team than Auburn. The Tigers scored just nine runs their last nine games and were swept more times in that month than during the entire Myers’ era. The bad hitting was amplified by coaching decisions as coach Dean tried to small-ball the few base runners he had by sacrificing hitters and causing bad numbers to dip lower.
Strangely enough, Auburn’s power hitting was better this season as the Tigers could hit the long ball. Kendall Veach had a terrific last season as a Tiger, in particular.
Things got no better when the regular season ended. The lone bright spot in Auburn’s pitching after losing Martin was the development of Chardonnay Harris, but she got few opportunities to excel as Dean went with Swindle and Lexi Handley in the first regional game. She did make fantastic appearance in game two and looked like the next Auburn ace. However, she elected to transfer.
Auburn will be replacing at least one other defensive spot with the departure of seniors. Carmyn Greenwood looked to be the first player to be elevated to a full time starter, especially as a hitter, but she also elected to transfer, leaving for UAB. It wouldn’t be shocking to hear of other departures. In addition, Auburn loses some critical senior leadership.
So, Auburn enters its third year under Dean, who now has a major transition on his hands. While there are still a few holdovers from the Myers’ era, Dean will be relying very heavily on young players that he recruited and developed. However, he must figure out his pitching rotation.
Ashlee Swindle has been a good pitcher for Auburn, but she is no ace and is frequently shelled by opposing offenses. Handley can hit the upper-60s with her boiler, but she has almost no control over the fastball.
Auburn’s hitting has a long way to go, and Dean must decide if coach Ketlehut is the man for the job. Dean should also evaluate his in-game coaching, as well. Auburn’s plate approach was subpar for SEC play with a predictable pattern of small ball with runners on first. Auburn’s at-bats were frequently bad as well. Dean’s leash on his pitchers was also questionable at best. It has been rumored by 247Sports that Eugene Lenti will replace Ketlehut.
Auburn’s faithful want softball to be great. The sport is growing at an astronomical pace, and Auburn was in the thick of it under Myers. If Dean does not begin showing more success, the faithful may be calling for his dismissal.