Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer|
From left, Taylor Lee Phillips, Jessica McIntyre, Jennifer Gomez and Lauren Thomas are members of the NAIA defending national champion Mobile team. Phillips played at Decatur High and McIntyre played at Austin. The NAIA tournament begins Friday and concludes Wednesday.
New faces, same result
Mobile's fresh roster returns to defend its NAIA crown
By Mark Edwards
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After winning the NAIA softball championships a year ago, the University of Mobile returns to Decatur with a new coach and a roster with almost all new faces, but the same old winning record.
Mobile enters the tournament with a 35-14 record and the Region XIII championship, which was significant because the Lady Rams had to win three games against two teams that made it to Decatur this year as well — Lee (Tenn.) and Shorter (Ga.).
It marked the tradition-rich program's 13th regional championship in 15 years. It also gave the Lady Rams an automatic berth into the 20-team NAIA championships, which begins Friday at Wilson Morgan Park. Pool-play action starts at 9 a.m., and Mobile will face Savannah Art & Design at 11:30 a.m. and Virginia-Wise at 4:30 p.m. The tournament will continue through Wednesday.
"A lot of people have wanted to give us an excuse — you have a new team, you got started late," said first-year head coach Coby Mackin, a former Mobile All-American. "But we haven't wanted to hear any of that. Instead, we've wanted to uphold the Mobile tradition and we haven't allowed any excuses."
Even so, Mobile's return to Decatur has given the tournament one of its most remarkable stories.
The program has seen a big turnover in personnel the past two years. Former Mobile coach Becky Clark left the school after the 2005 season to start the South Alabama softball program. Vincent Dima replaced her for 2006 when Mobile won the NAIA championship, but he left after the season to join Clark as an assistant coach.
Four of Mobile's starters left to join South Alabama, too. That left the Lady Rams with only five players who played for the 2006 season, including only one full-time starter, shortstop Jennifer Gomez. Two others who started a handful of games each also returned in first baseman Jessica McIntyre, an Austin High graduate, and second baseman Taylor Lee Phillips, a Decatur graduate.
In addition, the school didn't hire Mackin until June 2006. That didn't give her a lot of time to recruit.
"We had to find kids quickly, but we found enough players, and the ones we found were capable of helping us win a championship," Mackin said.
"So we've got a lot of new faces, but the same mindset we've always had."
Oh, and there's one more matter that had Mackin's attention this season — she found out in September that she and husband Lee Mackin were pregnant with their first child. Originally, the child was due about now, which meant she would've missed the NAIA championships.
However, Marlee Mackin came early and was born April 16, which means her mother will coach the Lady Rams in the tournament.
"It's was God's timing, and we've made it work," Mackin said.
She said that assistant coaches Terri McCormick and Maribel Riera — a pair of former Mobile players — have helped her adjust to motherhood while coaching a collegiate softball team.
In addition, Mackin said she has a 14-player roster that has adjusted to the situation, each other and NAIA softball.
"This has been a year when it has taken every single person to accomplish what we have," she said. "We only have 14 players on the roster, but we've needed every one of them."
The top guns at the plate are outfielder Yaicey Sojo (.431, 13 home runs, 48 RBIs), the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference player of the year, and third baseman Anandys Suarez (.374, 11 home runs, 50 RBIs).
However, Mobile has gotten a solid contribution from its two Decatur natives as well.
McIntyre had shoulder surgery in the summer but has returned as the regular first baseman, batting .339 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs. Phillips has converted from shortstop to second baseman and averaged .308 with three homers and 33 RBIs.
Both made the NAIA academic honor roll, which was recognized at the NAIA's opening ceremonies Thursday evening. To make it, a player must be active, have been a student for at least a year and carry a grade point average of at least 3.5.
Also, the NAIA awards one player from each team its Champions of Character award, and for Mobile, Phillips took that honor.
"She's been our hardest worker," Mackin said. "From where she started in August to where she is now, she's come a long way."
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