Out in the West Texas town of Big Spring is the dynamic Howard College softball team led by manager Kelly Raines.
You would think the Howard Hawks mostly consist of Texas high school softball players looking to stay local at the junior college level, but the current Hawks roster features 14 of 21 players from the state of California. Three of the non-California players are from other areas on the West Coast.
"A lot of times it's easier to get a California kid than a kid from Houston because those players have so many options," Coach Raines told FloSoftball in an interview.
So, how did Coach Raines build a program in a small Texas town with players from Southern and Northern California? There are three key reasons why.
[tweet url="https://twitter.com/HowardSoftball/status/861355241937260544" hide_media="0" hide_thread="1"]
1. Howard College Fills In Scholarship Gap
In California, JUCO schools do not offer scholarships for softball players. However, Howard is able to offer scholarships for two years of community college.
That is very attractive to softball players in California who fall into three categories:
- The players who fall through the cracks of recruiting but are good enough to play collegiate-level softball.
- The players who do not score well on their college entrance exams, so they need to pursue the JUCO route before attending a four-year university.
- The players (and their families) who do not want to incur college debt or take out loans to attend a major university in California during their freshman and sophomore years.
Players have the ability to receive financial help early in their college careers at Howard College. Plus, they can get a head start on their degrees at the university level as a junior and senior.
What attracts elite California softball players to Howard is that Coach Raines runs the program like a four-year university. The players are only there for two years, but the training, recruitment, and player development is at the level of a major softball program.
Now the word is spreading to more players in California who see the JUCO route as an attractive alternative to starting their softball and college career at a major university.
[tweet url="https://twitter.com/Charbuddy12/status/894227874793758721" hide_media="0" hide_thread="1"]
2. The Program Is Building Upon Itself
Coach Raines has built a strong reputation in softball circles and Howard has a track record of success. It's nice to have the scholarship opportunity, but California softball players also want to win. That is certainly the case at Howard.
The on-field success has included multiple regional titles in Texas. Howard also advanced deep in this year's national tournament in Utah. But the Hawks eventually ran into the Butler juggernaut led by another JUCO success story Regan Mergele.
Howard College also provides opportunities for off-field success by helping softball players with their career goals. The program has been running strong for over a decade to where sisters and other family members want to follow the path from California to Big Spring.
[tweet url="https://twitter.com/HowardSoftball/status/870408568012382210" hide_media="0" hide_thread="1"]
"If one player likes our program, it builds a reputation and builds upon itself," Coach Raines said. "They want to come to Howard. We just have to educate parents and travel ball coaches on junior college opportunities, such as scholarships, outside of California."
The success stories have helped reinforce the pipeline from California to Big Spring. Asked to capture a transformative story about a player who completed the process, Coach Raines immediately thought of former Howard Hawk Corrina Liscano.
Corrina is from Pomona, California, which lies in between L.A. County and Orange County. She was a very good player recruited to Howard, had tremendous success for the Hawks, went on to play two years for Texas State at the D-1 level, and graduated this spring.
"She needed the JUCO process and we offered her a scholarship. She was one of our success stories," Coach Raines said. "A four-year school might not be a good fit for everyone right away and Corrina benefited from a smaller atmosphere. She got two years under her belt, then moved on to a bigger university."
The atmosphere and culture at Howard also captures the third important element of what has contributed to Coach Raines' success.
[tweet url="https://twitter.com/HowardSoftball/status/896060341796298752" hide_media="0" hide_thread="1"]
3. Strong Sense Of Community In Big Spring
A key ingredient of what has contributed to Howard's great reputation is the small town, big support atmosphere.
You don't have to be from Texas to understand how Friday nights in the fall work. Small towns in Texas simply shut down for high school football games on Friday nights.
That concept has translated to Howard. Some California players are accustomed to playing softball in front of smaller crowds of family and friends. Then, when they show up to a Howard Hawk game on a recruiting visit, they are blown away by the size of the crowd for a JUCO game.
The Big Spring community comes out in droves to support the Hawks. Even the president of the university, Dr. Cheryl Sparks, traveled to the national tournament in Utah to represent the Hawks. That kind of support from the community to the president's office captures the amount of support for the program.
The picture of support continues to drive Coach Raines to be successful and build on what they've established in Big Spring.
It helps that her husband, Scott Raines, is the basketball coach and their 10-year-old son has grown up in Big Spring. Plus, former player Shelby Shelton is a huge help as assistant coach and she is bringing on another former player, Liz Torres, as a second assistant to the team.
The community is strong. And, when former players return to be part of the program, it helps Howard College continue on its growth path. It also helps that Shelby loves to recruit in California and Liz is from Palmdale. That will only strengthen the pipeline from California to Texas.
[tweet url="https://twitter.com/HowardSoftball/status/892127699518533635" hide_media="0" hide_thread="1"]
"Texas JUCOS are just different," Coach Raines said. "Athletics are very important, the admin wants to win, and we have a very supportive president. The support is here. We want coaches and players to feel that support because that says a lot about our school as a smaller community college.
"We are trying to get the best player that we can get here. The better the athlete and softball player, the better we are. So, we put a lot of effort into recruiting and recruiting the best fit. We also try to make the experience enjoyable and we take a lot of pride in our program. We work hard every day to get better. That is our foundation."
Coach Raines has built a program that will continue to be successful competing for regional and national titles. It seems like it's only a matter of time until the Hawks take a JUCO national title.
When that day comes, the celebration at Howard College will extend from Texas all the way to California, which means you know the party will include Whataburger and In-N-Out.