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The Buy-In: How Auburn Built A Women's College World Series Contender From Scratch

When Clint Myers took over a moribund Auburn softball program, he promised his players they'd be winners. When they bought in, the team started proving him right.

by Rob Trucks
Jun 3 2016, 2:35pm

Image courtesy of Auburn University

Auburn softball is headed to their second consecutive Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. This also happens to be just the second trip in school history. In 2013, mere months before the arrival of Myers and Sons—head coach Clint, sons Corey and Casey, and "third son" Scott Woodard—the team didn't even qualify for the Southeastern Conference's 10-team post-season tournament.

Ask Clint Myers about these transitions—his own from Arizona State to Auburn, and Auburn's from conference doormat to national title contender—and you will hear phrases like "buy in" and "unconditional trust." While this is fairly standard, if optimistic, coach-talk, there is something about how frequently the phrases come up—from both Myers and his team—that changes the way they echo.

Read More: "You Will Get Beat Down:" What It's Like To Practice Against The WNBA's Best

Unsurprisingly, there is more than positive thinking at work here. "We analyze the game," Myers says. "We try and use logic. We try and use the percentages." Among other innovations, Myers and his coaches have instituted a defensive hop for infielders, individualized warm-ups and cool-downs for the deepest, longest-tossing pitching staff in the conference, and built genuinely close working relationships with both the University's Kinesiology and Engineering departments to ensure the science supports the staff's empirical suppositions.

This emphasis on an analytical approach has worked for Myers. More than worked, really. Prior to his arrival at Auburn, seven of Myers' eight Arizona State teams went to the Women's College World Series. Twice they returned with National Championships. Even in the tradition-rich Pac-12, the speed of Myer's success stood out.

There's no such softball history in Auburn, Alabama. This season is the program's 20th, and in the first 17 Auburn softball went to the World Series exactly zero times, and won the Southeastern Conference tournament... exactly zero times.

"When we came aboard," Myers says, "we all had one mission, and that was to teach the game right. What we needed from them was to buy in. But buy-in required, basically, unconditional trust. We stood before them in our first meeting, and we said, 'We're not in a rebuilding. We're not waiting to recruit players. We're going to go out and we're going to win right now. We're going to win a Regional and we're going to play in the Super Regional. We're expecting to go to the College World Series.'

"There was no 'might happen,' 'if we play well it could happen.' These were statements of fact. We're not goal setters. We have a level of expectation, because expectations are real. We expect to be in the College World Series. We expect to play for National Championships. There's not a lot of hope involved. You believe, and again it goes back to that unconditional trust."

Myers is not the only one bringing it back. "Just having him come here and explain that we're going to go to the World Series," says senior first baseman Jade Rhodes, "we're going to win the World Series... it didn't really set in. Like, we kind of all looked at him and we're like, 'Maybe this guy's kind of crazy.'"

Rhodes, second baseman Emily Carosone and left fielder Tiffany Howard are the three starting Auburn seniors who were in the room as freshmen when Clint Myers told his brand new team—a team with a 7-17 conference record the prior year—that they would soon be playing in the College World Series.

Howard, the leadoff hitter, signed on the earliest of the three, even though she had the bumpiest offensive ride. "Our first practice," Howard says. "Things that he taught us in the first day, it's like it was completely different from what I'd been learning, but it made sense. Everything they said, it made sense because they would give us the reason why we were doing this. And so I think it was literally the first practice."

But Howard, an SEC All-Freshman selection, finished her first Myers-coached season batting below .300, by far the worst average of her career.

"My sophomore year," she says. "I think the first entire month I didn't get a hit."

Myers and his staff changed Howard's swing during the off-season, transforming the Integrative Biology major from a power slapper into...well, a different and more efficient kind of power slapper.

"I feel like I had the concept of how they wanted me to slap," Howard says. "I felt like my swing was fine, especially in practice, so it was more a confidence thing. In practice I'd be fine. Everything they're telling me to do I feel like I'm doing right, and then in the game it would just like . . . "

Perhaps you're aware of that near-whistling, near-whooshing sound people make to signal that something—an apparition, a nearly hooked freshwater fish, the value of your 401K account at the end of George W. Bush's second term—just disappears. Tiffany Howard also knows that sound, and she can reproduce it convincingly.

As a junior, Howard reached base at a .525 clip and hit .415, numbers good enough to make her a third-team All-American. This year, she's just a shade below .400 again. Lesson, as they say, learned.

When the system is working. Image courtesy Auburn University

Carosone is a prototypically savvy and scrappy second baseman but, at least in terms of offensive statistics, the four-year starter's individual performance appears almost unaffected by the Myers tenure. Then again, Carosone may be missing a learning curve: she has more hits than games played in each of her four seasons, and a career batting average of .406 to go with her 84 HBP. Carosone was also selected for the SEC All-Freshman team before Myers had any idea how good he looked in orange and blue, but that doesn't mean changes weren't made.

"Just fielding a ground ball wasn't easy at first," says Carosone. "I remember telling (one-time double play partner) Turtle Bogaards that I've never missed this many ground balls before. But once you really figure out how your body works, with the way they're teaching you, I mean, I really was just about close to unstoppable. Like, I wasn't letting any balls go by. I knew how to field a crappy hop. I knew how to field a short hop.

"Corey (Myers) says that the difference between great players and good players is great players can predict, so he was really hard on me about knowing ahead of time where I was going to go, no matter where the ball was hit."

Since that fielding rebuild, Carosone has been an SEC All-Defensive selection twice. More importantly, after her team missed the conference tournament her freshman year, she was named SEC Tournament MVP in both her junior and senior seasons, as she helped her team to the first and second SEC championships in Auburn history. "Everyone brings it up," says Rhodes, an SEC All-Defensive selection at first base after entering Auburn as a third baseman, "about how we were our freshman year, as a team and then individually. Just looking back and seeing how I was my freshman year and not really getting at-bats, not hitting the ball or anything, and then looking at my senior year, now I'm like, Dang. I mean, I'm doing the best I've ever done since I've been here."

Rhodes is innocent of overstatement. After playing in just 25 games her freshman year, with zero homers and a batting average short of half the Mendoza Line, Rhodes earned a second-team All-SEC nod her senior season with a .351 average. Her home runs now come in bunches; she's hit 36 over the past two seasons.

Though her individual game has shown the most improvement among Auburn's starting seniors, Rhodes was the last to yield her full faith and credit to Myers' gospel of buy-in. "The World Series last year is when we really bought in," she says. "The first year we made it to Regionals, didn't go any further than that. We're like, 'Okay, we made it further than we did my freshman year.' Junior year we made it to SECs, won SECs, made it to Regionals, won Regionals and won Super Regionals. I think when I got to Oklahoma City is when it really all sunk in."

In his three seasons at Auburn, Clint Myers has repaid his players' trust with a newfound, thoroughly well-earned confidence, and now the team's second World Series ticket.

"Unconditional trust is not something that happens to everybody at the same time," Myers says. "It is them realizing that the things we're saying are accurate and true, so that's an individual thing... Now we're in the South, which is a completely different venue than the West... different kids, different make-ups. But I tell you, they did buy in. It's a mindset. It's a philosophy. It's how you see yourself. It's how you want to be seen." It's complicated and it's not; belief is tricky that way. So maybe it's a matter of where you want to be seen—like the College World Series in Oklahoma City. Clint Myers' team knows the answer to that one, unconditionally.

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