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McNeese State head softball coach Mike Smith. (American Press Archives)

McNeese State head softball coach Mike Smith. (American Press Archives)

Pain to fuel the fire for the Cowgirls

Last Modified: Monday, May 13, 2013 5:55 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

Sometimes getting close can hurt even more than not getting close at all.

And sometimes it can fuel a fire that burns all offseason.

For McNeese State softball coach Mike Smith, he knows the pain now he hopes for the fire.

“We have to learn from this year and use it to our benefit,” said Smith.

Despite one of the best season’s in school history, McNeese State’s softball team was left with a bitter taste in its mouth at the end.

A surprising two straight losses at the Southland Conference tournament last weekend won’t wipe all the good numbers the Cowgirls were able to post during the season, but it won’t sit well with them either.

“It is very disappointing,” said Smith. “We did so much good this year, and not just on the field but also in the community, but that is hard to look at right now.

“All you can remember is what happened last. I hope in time the girls understand what they have accomplished and how well they played.”

But those two losses could also go a long way in the future of this program.

“I hope this fuels them in the offseason,” Smith said. “I hope they learn from this experience, that a good season can be taken away from you that quickly. It hurts. It should hurt. It can also help.”

The Cowgirls are still young, but as of now they have a feeling that they let one slip away.

In simple terms, the Cowgirls picked the wrong weekend to go cold, especially at the plate.

They managed just seven hits and one run over 16 innings, losing 1-0 to Central Arkansas in nine innings in their opener and being eliminated 3-1 by Southeastern Louisiana.

With the losses came the reality that despite 38 wins and only 15 defeats there would not be a bid coming for the NCAA tournament. The season was over, one loss before the school record could be tied and well short of the growing expectations.

“We just didn’t hit like we can,” said Smith. “Give the pitchers we faced credit, but we also have to learn how to make something happen.

“I think that first game took a lot of the wind out of our sails. It put a lot of pressure on us for the next day and we didn’t respond.”

Still, there was a lot of good done by this team this year.

“It was another step toward what we want to build as a program,” said Smith. “I’m not happy with the loss, but I’m going to look back on the first two years here, and especially this one, and remember the good things we have accomplished.

“But there is still a lot here to be done.”

That’s typical Smith. You can never tell if the glass is half empty or half full, you just know he wants and expects more but appreciates what he already has.

In his two years at McNeese, Smith has a .667 win percentage at 72-36. He has also given the program a giant jolt of adrenaline.

Smith came to McNeese from the hotbed of softball, Southern California. He had been more than a winning coach, he had dominated in NAIA at Cal Baptist, a small, private school in Riverside.

Cal Baptist was in the shadows of the University of California-Riverside, where Smith had spent a long year as interim. He believed he had the job in hand, but it was never officially offered to him and after one tough season he was gone from UCR.

And, despite winning national titles at Cal Baptist, he wasn’t getting the looks from bigger schools. So he went searching for a Division 1 program and landed at McNeese State.

“I wanted to coach on the top level, to see if my ideas work,” said Smith.

They have.

He has elevated the Cowgirls from a good program to local power despite the tough weekend. Smith is the first to tell you he did not inherit a struggling program, but rather one which needed just a push to break out.

Instead, they got a giant shove.

“I can’t give Mike enough praise for all he has done since coming here,” said McNeese Athletic Director Tommy McClelland. “He came into a good program and made it much better.

“Anybody who meets Mike knows how engaging a personality he has and how passionate he is about softball. That was one of the things that struck me when we started talking.”

It seemed like the perfect fit. A softball program looking to take the next step forward and a coach interested in doing the same thing.

“I knew that if I could get Mike on campus we would have a good chance at landing him,” said McClelland. “I wasn’t sure he would come, but I knew we would have that chance because of all we had done and what we wanted to do.”

Something worked.

“They sold me on what could be accomplished and how badly they wanted to do it,” said Smith.

The feeling was mutual.

“I think we sold him on the possibilities and I know he sold us on what he could bring,” said McClelland.

Smith, who in 15 years of coach has compiled a 708-209 record including 72-36 at McNeese, led the Cowgirls to their first outright regular season Southland Conference championship in 30 years.

“It is exciting that the girls are going to get fitting for rings and have the championship,” said Smith. “But winning the regular season leaves you with a trophy but no trip to the NCAA tournament in our league. So you work hard all season and in the end two bad games and you are done.”

And winning at the end of the season is what drives Smith. He has made winning at McNeese expected. The goal is to compete against the best, not just be good but strive to be great.

It is something the players learned quickly.

“The culture changed the first day,” said junior Katie Roux. “The expectations grew. More was demanded.”

Some left without giving Smith much of a chance. Those who have stayed have now benefited.

“I can’t tell you what he has meant to the program and to the players,” said Roux. “He has made this team better and more importantly made each one of us not only better softball players but better people.”

And to think, it all started with a fresh coat of paint.

The first thing Smith did was paint the fences, to give Cowgirl Diamond a fresh look. A little style. Look good, play good.

He wanted to instill pride into the team. It worked.

“We have just so much more confidence in our program and where coach can take us,” said Roux. “Not just this year but in the future.”

But Smith lives in the now. He believes this is the time for his Cowgirls to shine.

“If we play McNeese softball, we can compete with anybody,” said Smith. “It is about us. We don’t worry about the other team.”

No question Smith believes and yes, he is cocky. That comes from his background as a minor league pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, where as a pitcher Smith reached the Double AA level.

It was that attitude that not only got Smith to schedule the defending champs in his first week at the helm of the McNeese program but also to lead the Cowgirls to a win against Arizona State.

“We learned right then that he knew what he was talking about,” said Roux.

He also made the Cowgirls become part of the community like never before, helping to raise the programs profile.

“That is all part of what we are trying to do,” said Smith.

Despite all this, those two final losses will stick the coach “for a long time,” he said.

It will also make him work just as hard as before.

“We still have work to do,” said Smith.

He seems more than ready to do it too.

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