Inside The Dugout: Howard Deals With Unique ChallengesColumns
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ATHENS, Ga. — The Howard University players shifted back and forth on the top step of the dugout like a conga line. They shimmied their hips and raised their hands to celebrate the walk their teammate had just drawn.
It was 36 degrees at 10:30 a.m. and snow flurries were falling from the sky, yet the Bison had energy to burn.
But as soon as Howard scored the game’s first run in the top of the first inning against Kent State, the umpires stopped the action.
The University of Georgia field maintenance crew quickly rolled out the tarp to keep the field from being blanketed in snow.
Howard head coach Tori Tyson walked over from the third base box and into the dugout wearing low-cut socks underneath leggings and no jacket.
Tyson played at Nebraska and coaches in the Washington D.C. area, but this was the first time she’d ever experienced a snow delay for softball.
“This is wild. I am literally mind blown,” Tyson said as ‘Winter Wonderland’ played over the sound system at Jack Turner Field. “You couldn’t have paid me to think this was going to happen out here.”
Tyson scheduled the season-opening trip to Georgia to expose her young team to a higher-level of competition and help forge bonds through adversity.
The Bison got much more than they bargained for. They endured travel delays, wacky weather and lopsided losses. They celebrated small victories, lamented frustrating mistakes and always found a way to laugh.
As a historically black college and university (HBCU), Howard has a much smaller budget and less resources than Power Five programs. The Bison can’t afford many plane flights, so Tyson has to schedule with guarantees in mind. Having one game cancelled because of snow wasn’t ideal.
The games in Georgia were the first time the Bison had played on dirt in more than a year.
Howard doesn’t have an on-campus field. They play at Nationals Youth Academy, which is located about 10 miles from campus. It can take anywhere from 30-50 minutes to drive to the facility depending on traffic, which makes it tough to book one-hour practice sessions with much regularity.
The Bison often practice on the football field on campus. Last season when Tyson was complaining about her outfielders not playing balls off the outfield wall correctly, she received a stark reminder of the facility disparity.
“Our assistant said to me, ‘Tori, of course they are not playing balls off the wall correctly. They don’t have a wall,’” Tyson said. “I had to throw a ball off a divider in the gym for them to practice doing it right.”
The Bison will be on the road for their first 22 games, playing tournaments in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and Virginia.
If the first road trip is any indication, Howard could be in for a bumpy ride filled with plenty of ups and downs.
Just as the Bison were preparing to leave campus for the airport last Thursday, they received an alert that their flight to Atlanta had been delayed. Rain and heavy winds were whipping through the South.
Their bus driver had another job later in the day, so he needed to drop them off no matter what. The Bison sat in the terminal for nearly five hours before boarding their flight.
The plane encountered major turbulence as it neared Atlanta, unlike anything the players and coaching staff had felt before.
Coming only two weeks after the fatal helicopter crash that killed NBA star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others, the Bison were already on edge.
“I almost cried. It was terrifying,” Howard senior Kamryn Tillman said. “It’s not like you know you are going to die, but it was the realization you could. It was very, very scary.”
The Bison landed safely, and scurried off the plane to get their luggage. They still had a nearly two-hour bus ride to Athens ahead of them.
They didn’t arrive at their hotel until 2:30 a.m., and had to be up by 7:30 for breakfast. Their season opener was at 11:30.
It would be the first of four run-rule losses Howard would suffer in the tournament, two of which came against No. 18 Georgia. Without a pitcher on staff that had ever won a Division I game, the Bison knew there would be some growing pains.
Sophomore Sydney Hixenbaugh got the start in the first meeting against Georgia on Friday. Although she gave up five earned runs in two innings, the Drexel transfer was just grateful to be on the field.
Hixenbaugh suffered a major health scare last March when her lung collapsed. The New Jersey native had returned home after a Drexel tournament game, and was rushed to the hospital for surgery to remove the lower half lobe of her left lung.
“I wasn’t sure if I would ever play again,” Hixenbaugh said. “I wouldn’t say I was in a full depression after the surgery, but I was constantly questioning things because softball is my first love. I am so happy the doctors cleared me and Coach Tyson wanted me here.”
In the dugout before Howard faced Kent State on Saturday morning, Hixenbaugh foraged through her backpack for a pack of peanut M&Ms she bought at the airport for $5. She slyly grabbed five and quickly zipped the pocket closed.
“I always have candy in my bag,” she said. “I just try not to let the team know or else they will steal it from me. But they know I have it anyway.”
Waiting out the snow
Once the umpires postponed play because of the snow, the Bison prepared to head to the bus to keep warm in the parking lot.
But the Georgia staff invited the players to wait in a room nearby the field instead. Their mouths dropped and their eyes got big once they stepped inside.
There were snacks, televisions and refrigerators stocked with drinks. Having been equally amazed by Georgia’s indoor facility the day before, the Bison began to realize how the other half lives.
The SEC distributed just over $44.6 million per school during the 2018-19 school year. That number will increase even more once the conference negotiates a new television deal to replace its current CBS football package.
As they marveled at the amenities, the Bison discussed creating a reality show where low-budget programs switch places with Power Five programs for a week.
“It’s like that show ‘Wife Swap’ only with softball teams,” junior Kaylen Samuel said. “Once we saw everything they had in there, we were like ‘This is crazy!’ We don’t even have our own field. We are grateful for anything we can get.”
After nearly an hour and no sign of the weather improving, Howard decided to retreat to the hotel to wait out the delay there.
As the bus rolled along Milledge Avenue, it passed frat houses with coeds staging snowball fights and building snowmen.
The Bison streamed into the lobby and waited for lunch from Panera to be delivered. What was supposed to be the post-game meal would now be the pre-game meal.
The Courtyard Marriott was housing a lot of athletic talent. The Alabama men’s basketball team was in town to play Georgia on Saturday night, and took up a large block of rooms.
Several Howard players remained in the lobby and cracked open books and laptops to study.
Tillman, a Georgia native, is majoring in chemical engineering and already has a full-time job lined up at Eli Lilly once she graduates. The senior outfielder interned at the pharmaceutical company in Indianapolis over the summer. She plans to spend a few years working before going to med school.
Samuel is majoring in international relations and wants to be a diplomat and work at an embassy in Germany, Japan or the UK. She’s applying to study abroad this summer.
“The kids that are at Howard are here because they want to be lawyers and plastic surgeons and they understand our culture and what Howard means,” Tyson said. “Howard is like the mecca for African-Americans to go and get their education. Celebrities send their kids here.”
Tyson, 30, is in her second season at Howard. She was well aware of what to expect before taking the job, having been an HBCU assistant at Bethune-Cookman before leaving to be the pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton and Maryland.
“I was an African-American woman and felt I had to prove I could coach with the same resources as anyone else in the country,” Tyson said. “I felt like if I stayed at Bethune I was doing what is expected of a minority coach in some way. That was the only reason I left. I loved being at an HBCU.”
Tyson thought long and hard about taking the Howard job, realizing some may view it as a step down. But she never saw it that way. She considered it a calling.
“If I don’t coach these young minorities, who is going to?” Tyson said. “I wasn’t going back to an HBCU because I had to. I was going back because I wanted to. That is different.”
Along with being the Howard head coach, Tyson runs $10 camps for inner-city youth in DC on Monday nights. She wants to expose more minorities to softball and show them what’s possible.
Her biggest challenge at Howard has been trying to change the mindset of her players and infuse them with confidence.
“There is a stigma with the HBCU level of softball,” Tyson said. “I think our girls realize that, and feel a responsibility every time they play these teams they are not supposed to beat that they need to at least compete.”
A small victory came last week when USA Softball released its 2020 Collegiate Player of the Year Watch List. Howard sophomore Kalita Dennis was listed among the 50 candidates.
“I was in shock,” Dennis said. “I thought it was something only the big schools were considered for. I didn’t think they would recognize me going to an HBCU. It was a big surprise.”
Dennis has struggled over the years with her throwing ability on defense. She was critiqued by a coach at age 10 about her shotput-like throwing motion and became constantly fearful of making the mistake again.
“It’s something I felt has always held me back a little bit because I always put so much focus on it,” said Dennis, who primarily plays at first and second base. “It’s like the yips for some baseball players. I feel like I put too much pressure on myself and hesitate on throws more than I should.”
After Tyson surprised Dennis with the USA Softball honors, she told her: “Don’t you see, they are not worried about your limitations. They see the greatness in you. They see what you can do. That is what you have to keep looking at.”
Future forecast looks bright
As her players ate lunch during the snow delay, Tyson retreated to her hotel room to make phone calls and check on her daughter.
Six-year-old Skylar had never missed an opening weekend but being in kindergarten meant she had to stay behind in DC for school.
A single mother, Tyson struggled to accept help when Skylar was younger. But now she welcomes the assistance of her “village of people.”
One of her former players was babysitting Skylar while Tyson was in Georgia, and another friend took Skylar to her first school dance and basketball game.
“Obviously, this wasn’t ideal, and I don’t want to be a platform to be the single mom coach,” Tyson said. “But at the end of the day, things happen, and life happens, and Skylar makes me a better coach, so I have figured out a way to make it work.”
The Bison finally got the call that the weather had cleared, and the game would restart five hours after it was delayed.
The players boarded the bus and headed back to the field. Howard’s one-run lead didn’t last long as Kent State rallied for an 8-1 win.
The Bison lost the final two games by run rule to finish 0-5 at the tournament. It’s a fine line for Tyson to challenge her young team without crushing its confidence.
But the reality is the only results that truly impact Howard’s NCAA tournament fate are in conference play. The Bison have to win the MEAC title to earn the automatic bid. There are rarely any at-large hopes for HBCUs.
The road trip to Georgia provided valuable challenges, bonding opportunities and memories that will carry through a lifetime.
The Bison have much more travel ahead and many more tournament games to play. But in Tyson’s eyes, the forecast can only improve.
“The truth is they have to fail to experience growth. I can yell at them about something, but they need to see it in real life,” Tyson said. “It’s been an amazing weekend because a lot of these girls had their epiphany moments. They had those ah-ha moments, and that is only going to help us in the long run.”