In the summer of 2014, I watched the first college softball game I've ever seen on TV. That game was the Regional final between Auburn and Minnesota. When Auburn hired Clint Myers as head coach in the spring of 2013, I knew big things were probably in store from his resume at Arizona State, but I didn't know how quickly those big things were coming.
This article is titled "Thank You Kasey Cooper." That's primarly because I couldn't list every single player I discuss below and the ones I've probably forgotten about. I could have titled it "Thank You Clint Myers," but I didn't want to. We all know how much Myers has meant to Auburn and the Softball program. I wanted to focus on a player. And as a record holder in so many career categories for both Auburn and the SEC, Kasey was the easiest. She's also perhaps the most recognizable to Auburn fans and fans from other schools.
I knew little to nothing about the softball team at the time of Clint Myers' hiring or even at the end of the 2014 season other than that I'd be keeping a closer eye on them during the 2015 season. I knew nothing about the individual players. I knew about Branndi Malero and Morgan Estell graduating, but I didn't know the names I would become very familiar with over the next two years. Names like Tiffany Howard, Jade Rhodes, Emily Carosone, Rachel Walters, Lexi Davis, Marcy Harper, Carlee Wallace, Victoria Draper, and, of course, Kasey Cooper.
Those were all names I quickly became familiar with when the 2015 season rolled around. Still, I honestly didn't watch too many games. I followed the highlights and details from Twitter feeds. I wrote very brief recaps of what they were doing on Monday mornings. The first game I really watched was the 2015 SEC Tournament final. That was when I learned about the tiny little freshman catcher Carlee Wallace and her impressive prowess with the bat when she hit the game-winning RBI.
I watched the Regionals closely. I wasn't the only one, either. I marveled at the traffic numbers here on College and Magnolia as softball previews and recaps were getting the type of page views we only see during football season. As Auburn began its first run deep into the NCAA Tournament, I began to become a softball fan. Along with tons of the rest of the Auburn Family.
That postseason run was a lot of fun. I was at a cousin's wedding following Twitter anxiously as Auburn went deep into extra innings against UCLA in the Women's College World Series. I was sitting on the couch with heart pounding during the semi-final loss to Florida up until the final out. I was hooked. I was hooked on a level that rivals my obsession with Auburn football scores in the Fall.
2016 rolled around and things picked up right where they left off. Auburn rolled through most of the schedule with few hiccups. I was writing weekly previews and recaps and they were getting a lot of hits in terms of page views. They won the SEC Tournament again. They swept their NCAA Regional again. They won the Super Regional. Again. Then came the Women's College World Series.
The Tigers just kept rolling through team after team. Right until the final against Oklahoma. I watched that series in a barracks room on Annual Training. It was heartbreaking to watch how close those girls came to winning it all and fall just short. Still, though, it was an amazing ride. Amazing catches, bombing home runs, it was a whole lot of fun even with the way it ended.
There were so many questions entering 2017. Emily Carosone, Jade Rhodes, Tiffany Howard, Marcy Harper, Rachel Walters, and Lexi Davis were all gone. That was all of the starting pitchers and many of the big hitters.
Still, Kasey Cooper was returning. Kasey Cooper who sits at or near the top of most of Auburn's batting records while also being a stellar defensive player in the field. Catcher Carlee Wallace was returning, as well, with her tiny strike zone that forces pitchers to give her pitches to hit. Which she does. With power and regularity. The starting pitchers may have graduated, but Kaylee Carlson and Makayla Martin showed a lot of promise in their 2016 appearances.
2017 didn't work out the way we all hoped. Cooper struggled at the plate at times - which is hardly surprising for someone who played so well for so long while also majoring in engineering and graduating with almost a 4.0. She did set the SEC record for RBIs during the season, though. There were off-field issues to distract the team. Big off-field issues like the resignation of the pitching coach. While a few players like Wallace continued to do well and Alyssa Rivera came on strong as a freshman, the team could just never get things going at the plate. There were defensive errors at very key moments that led to a number of losses.
It didn't matter, though. I was still following every game. It still hurt to see the seniors who began their careers by committing to build a program at Auburn under Clint Myers fall short of achieving their dream. They may have fallen short of their dream, but they made sure that the dream of a championship will be in the heart of every player who puts on the orange and blue after them.
The 2018 Auburn Softball team will look very similar to the 2017 team in terms of personnel. Kasey Cooper, Jenna Abbott, Sydne Waldrop, Haley Fagan, and Whitney Jordan will have moved on, but everyone else will be back. The two Snow sisters should join (or rejoin) the team. Other top-rated recruits will join, as well. They'll begin the season expecting to be right back in the thick of things when the season ends next year.
They'll do that because of players like Kasey Cooper. She was one of the first to decide that things would be special at Auburn under Clint Myers. She helped set the foundation - along with the players before her like Rhodes, Carosone, and others - that the future will be built upon. And they'll do it with fan support that has grown with every season thanks to their efforts.
Softball was a minor sport at Auburn before 2014. Since then, they've sold out Jane B. Moore Field in almost every game to the point that the stadium has been expanded and there are future plans to expand it even more. Yes, the coach has had a huge part of that, but the players on the field and the excitement they bring to the game are what really get the fans excited and into the games. They've turned people like me - who had no interest in softball just four years ago - into rabid fans of the sport who are learning the intricacies of the rise ball, slappers, and the defensive hop characteristic of Clint Myers teams.
Thank you to all the players from last year, the year before, and even the year before that who did so much to build the legacy of a powerhouse before you moved on. Thank you, Kasey Cooper. Thank you for the four years you gave to Auburn University. You leave it as an athlete in your sport on the level of Bo Jackson in football and baseball and Charles Barkley in basketball. When discussions begin for statues of players at their respective arenas, the first name on the list outside of Jane B. Moore Field should be yours.
Auburn Softball has an amazing future. Myself and plenty of others who knew nothing about it just a few short years ago can't wait to see where it goes from here. 2017 did not end as everyone hoped, but the future is still bright. It embodies the sentiment that we never say "War Eagle anyways." It's "War Eagle! Always!"