Three of the five members of the senior class, second baseman Chelsea Tate, centerfielder Scout Albertson and rightfielder Kirsty Grant have been the backbone of the Wolfpack resurgence, sparking the improvement with steady play despite having to adapt to different positions in the field.
N.C. State softball was in a state of flux entering into the 2013 campaign. After winning 133 games, along with an ACC Championship and NCAA Tournament berth, from 2005-07, the program had become stagnant over the following five years. A change had to be made.
Enter Shawn Rychcik. He came to Raleigh and replaced Lisa Navas, the only coach in the softball program's history, from Boston University after the 2012 season with sterling reputation. Inheriting a squad that returned most of its players from the previous campaign, there was no way for the four-time America East Conference Coach of the Year to know what he type of reception he would receive from the upperclassmen.
What he found at State was a versatile group of players that were eager to embrace the change.
"I decided to come to N.C. State because I knew that I could make a difference in the program and be a part of the change," Tate said. "I think after the first two years, it was frustrating because I was giving 100 percent and nothing was changing. I think getting the new coaching staff is really what the program needed. It allowed us players who came here to make a change the opportunity to do so."
"There is a lot of different ways it can go for upperclassmen when a new coach takes over," Rychcik said. "They can give you trouble. They can fight you. There are a lot of places where new head coaches have to run out their upperclassmen because they want to do it their way. Here, they have all been on board right from the beginning. They have been a good bunch."
The trio, along with fellow seniors Leah Jones and Hayley Stowe, has personified the acceptance with a willingness to fill whatever position has been asked of them. While there is symmetry to their team-first approach, the three utility players have starkly different backgrounds.
Tate hails from Mission Viejo, Calif., but upon her recruitment by N.C. State, knew instantly that Raleigh felt like home. The challenge of returning the Pack to prominence also appealed to her.
"I had honestly never heard of (N.C. State) before but I knew that it was in the ACC," Tate recalled. "I came out on my visit, we went to a football game, got to tour the campus, talked to some people around and I fell in love with it here. I didn't even give it an hour until I decided this is where I wanted to go."
"The friendliness of the people, going to the football game and seeing how involved people are there, I had never seen it before," Tate added. "It is different than back home. I am planning on staying in Raleigh. For post-graduation plans, I am looking at advising high school students and helping them reach college. I really like kids."
As N.C. State began to surge last season after a mid-season eight-game losing streak, many observers, including Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly—whose Volunteer squad staved off the Wolfpack in a hard-fought NCAA Regional in Knoxville last season en route to a national runner-up finish—felt it was the shift of Tate to second base that changed the team's fortunes.
Rychcik is inclined to agree.
"She has been a rock at second base, just so solid," Rychcik said. "There is a demand I have at second base and she really understands what I want at that position. She's had no problem with it at all. She's played pretty well down the stretch. She will certainly be missed more than we realize right now. She is very dependable."
While Tate came to Raleigh from the west coast, Grant arrived at N.C. State from Oakville, Ontario, Canada via Tallahassee Community College in Florida. Originally a catcher, she has settled nicely in rightfield, posting a .987 fielding percentage, and is also batting .296 entering postseason play.
The journey to Tallahassee gave Grant a familiarity with the ACC that helped lead her to State. She has also prospered academically since arriving on campus and was named to the Capital One Academic All-District III First Team on May 1.
"She is a smarty pants." Albertson quipped. "I went down to Florida (to play at Tallahassee Community College)," Grant said. "My coaches knew the coaches here. I thought that it was a big school in the ACC, a big conference. I liked the campus a lot and the atmosphere. I like living down here. I love the warm weather. It gets cold down here but nothing like (Ontario)."
Grant willingly accepted the move from catcher to the outfield when asked for her. Rychcik was grateful for her unselfishness.
"She was the backbone behind the plate," Rychcik said. "I explained the change and she said 'I understand it', so there was no resistance." "I think [Rychcik] brings a lot of confidence to the team," Grant said. "Anything he tells us we really take in. Anything he says we are willing to do right away, it doesn't matter."
From nearby Archdale, N.C. (around 15 miles southwest of Greensboro), Albertson grew up supporting the Pack. A sports junkie who will be heading to work for a branding agency in upstate, New York after graduation, she has also moved around the diamond throughout her time at State, starting at different positions in each of the last three seasons.
Albertson started 51 games at third base in 2012 and finished second on the team with 32 RBIs. Then Rychcik arrived and had other plans.
"When we came in last year, Chelsea and Scout were going to be platooning in rightfield," Rychcik said. "Kirsty was going to be our everyday catcher. Now Kirsty is the everyday rightfielder, Scout is in center after playing right last year and Chelsea has taken over at second. I love versatile kids. They have bounced around the lineup also. It nice to know just like that they could pop over to another position if need be and not be lost on an island."
"Scout has been the life of the team this year," Rychcik added. "She has a lot of energy. She has been positive and a lot of fun to be around. She has one more ‘big at-bat'. I think there is something left in her bat that is going to surprise some people in the postseason."
For Albertson, whose parents also played college ball, the journey at N.C. State reached its pinnacle in Tallahassee last season when the Wolfpack upset Florida State for the league title. It is an experience that she feels will endure after her college career ends.
"By far, sports-wise, [the highlight of my career] would definitely be the ACC Championship Game and having a winning mentality," Albertson said. "It carries over to all aspects of life. Whether in the classroom or going to look for a job, it's "I am going to win" and "I am going to succeed" and it has taught me more than just being on the field. That has been my biggest memory because it's carried over into everything I do."
Tate's most memorable moment, however, came after the game.
"One of my favorite memories is, after we won the ACC Championship Game, going into a restaurant and singing our school's fight song," Tate gleefully recalled. "This is in a local Tallahassee restaurant right around (Florida State's) campus, and we were banging on the table. Everyone there had just watched us play and their jaws dropped. We beat Florida State and they expected them to win, no doubt."
Leaving N.C. State softball better than it was when they first arrived is important to the versatile trio. After winning less than 30 percent of their conference games during their freshman and sophomore seasons, it is easy for the seniors to feel pride and even some amazement at the metamorphosis of the program.
"It is amazing," Grant said. "Just the difference, from those two years to now, it is incredible. I feel like this is kind of surreal, winning an ACC Championship last year and having a great team and competing again this year."
"Being a part of setting the standard here is something that will stay with you forever," Albertson said. "Even the girls that graduated last year, they still keep up with us and that have expectations for us. That is something that we will have when we go. This is how it is now. I know that they will carry on and one day be a super-regional and [Oklahoma City]-team. Once you get a team to buy into that, it is hard to fail."
Rychcik feels the Wolfpack can make a push in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. The stated goal of the program is to eventually be a national title contender. Towards the end of last season, State was playing toe-to-toe with teams that annually compete for championships.
One day, if the Pack reaches that point, the head coach feels that those who have set the table for the program during the beginning of his tenure will have as much right to call themselves champions as the ones who are playing on the field that day.
"You want your senior class to contribute and be your better players," Rychcik said. "Ours have done that. Hayley Stowe has contributed on the base paths. Leah Jones is solid at the plate and first base. The other three have been in the lineup all season long. They made the NCAA last season and hopefully they'll make it again. We had only been twice before last year. They have already equaled eight-to-10 years of history here in the last two years. They are a big part of it."
"We are 34-15," Rychcik noted. "That is who we are and it is because of those players. There is no dodging it. We are a pretty good team. Their fingerprints are all over it. They have been good. They have all had their moments and there are more moments out there for them."