Tatjana Matthews couldn't wait to swing a fungo bat for the first time Wednesday afternoon.
Before the Mississippi University for Women softball coach could do that, though, she had to navigate a morning filled with inquiries from family members who, like her, were anxiously awaiting the program's initial practice in The W's return to intercollegiate athletics.
Matthews said she had to field 30 calls from her father, who wanted to know what she expected from the first practice. She said her mother and her neighbors also sent her texts with messages like, "Drink the coffee. Practice is coming."
Even before Matthews fielded all of the questions, she took pain-staking care to make her practice plan was perfect. She might have been exaggerating when she said she changed her itinerary "57 different times." Matthews said her family members laughed at her for taking so much time to complete the first plan.
"As a softball coach, you love the game," Matthews said. "Watching that facility be built from the ground up is kind of like watching your house being built. I kind of equate the first practce, the first hit, as like the first dinner at the dinner table with your family."
Matthews called the practice, which started at 3 p.m. under cloudy skies and in wet conditions due to rain earlier in the day, "a beautiful chaos." The practice was the first for the sport in 15 years at The W. Earlier this school year, The W introduced men's soccer and women's cross country and welcomed back volleyball to kick off the school's return to intercollegiate athletics.
The W, which also will have a baseball team for the first time this year, is a member of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA). It also is working its way to NCAA Division III status.
Earlier Wednesday, a navy wind screen was installed on a new outfield fence at the refurbished Don Usher Softball Field. As the team practiced on the field's new artificial turf, The W Director of Athletics Jason Trufant fastened the wind screen to the fence and then installed a yellow plastic covering on top of the fence.
Behind the new fence at home plate, a construction crew worked on the press box. A new patio, which Trufant said will be painted blue, has been added in front of the white building that serves as a concession stand, storage facility, and bathroom. Trufant said an awning with an Owls logo will be added to cover the patio area.
"As a softball coach, you love the game," Matthews said. "Watching that facility be built from the ground up is kind of like watching your house being built. I kind of equate the first practice, the first hit, as like the first dinner at the dinner table with your family."
Matthews said she didn't expect to hold the first practice on the field. She credited the construction crews, Trufant, and The W President Jim Borsig for their support in helping the team realize that dream.
Matthews said the Owls will have a 21-player roster that features former New Hope High School standouts Anna Kate O'Bryant and Meredith Woolbright and former Caledonia High and Itawamba Community College standout Cara Hopper. Former South Lamar High player Mateline Newman, former East Webster High standouts Kandler Flora and Carolyn "Kendall" Wilkinson, and former Caledonia High player Makayla Taylor also are on the team's roster.
Matthews said the Owls started Wednesday with a rousing effort on their fitness test. She said seven players cut at least 20 seconds off their timed run from the fall season. She said all of the players passed the test in an all-around effort she said was "eons" better than they did in the fall.
"I think we had a little bit of an adrenaline rush," Matthews said. "They're ready for practice to start, so that kind of helped them a little bit."
Matthews said the players had to complete sprints, an on-the-minute, every-minute segment for endurance (sumo jumping jacks, squats, and burpees) for 15 minutes, crunches, and a half-miled timed run in five minutes. She said all of the work was done in Pohl Gymnasium on campus.
The W will open its season Sunday, Feb. 11, against Millsaps College in a doubleheader that will start at noon.
"We're at a point with an amazing group of young women that they believe in the process," Matthews said. "We all want to be that team that makes it to the USCAA championships."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.