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HBCU Programs Are Growing, Diversifying College Softball

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(Photo courtesy of Howard Athletics)

For decades, the softball programs of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been forces to be reckoned with. From regular season upsets to postseason nail biters, they have always brought the heat.

On May 20, 2016, almost everyone thought the heavily favored No. 8 Florida State Seminoles would walk away with an easy win to begin the Tallahassee Regional. However, the FAMU Rattlers had other plans. Coming alive after a two-hour rain delay, 2016 ACC Pitcher of the Year Jessica Burroughs and 2016 MEAC Pitcher of the Year Kenya Pereira went head-to-head in a pitchers' duel. Pereira held FSU scoreless after a first-inning score and only allowed five base runners for the entire game. Though FSU won 1-0, FAMU walked away with their heads held high and new fans saw the true meaning of HBCU softball.

When discussing some of the top programs in the country, diversity in softball is often a concern. According to the NCAA, the racial demographics of non-HBCU Division I softball have stayed steady over the last decade. For the 2020 season, 71 percent of players were white, four percent were black and 24 percent represented other racial groups.

"I think playing at an HBCU is so unique because it gives you a safe space for all different types of people not just black people," Alabama A&M alum Dorian Edwards said. "The unity, sisterhood and pride you gain from everyone embracing you just for being you is unmatched."

HBCUs all over the country provide and promote diverse environments for all student-athletes to play softball. In 2020, 24 percent of Division I HBCU players were white, 47 percent were black and 29 percent represented other races.

For many student-athletes of color, HBCUs also supply safer and healthier environments to learn and grow in while playing softball.

"When I was young, I was one of two or three black girls playing softball in my area," Prairie View A&M University softball alum Jeah Williams said. "I experienced cruel acts of racism at a young age at softball events … I assumed that was just how the world worked … It wasn't until my freshman year of high school that I joined a majority black team, Georgia Elite. That was my first experience being around so many black softball players, and I knew from then on that is who I wanted to be surrounded by."

Howard softball head coach Tori Tyson understands softball from both the HBCU and PWI (predominantly white institution) perspective. The Nebraska softball alum transitioned from playing at a PWI to head coaching at an HBCU in less than a decade.

At first, coaching wasn't precisely on Tyson's to-do list, but when the offer came up to follow Laura Watten to Bethune-Cookman and begin as an assistant coach while earning her masters, she took it. After her first coaching gig in 2014, Tyson left Bethune-Cookman to pursue other opportunities at PWIs, but when the Howard job opened up in 2019, there was no way she could refuse it.

"Everything made sense," Tyson said. "I wanted to go back to an HBCU, and I got to go back to the mecca of HBCUs. Here, there is good softball being played. These girls are athletic like no other and they want it. They play different and play with a chip on their shoulders."

That chip on their shoulders stems from a financially unequal playing field.

Behind every successful Power Five program is a complete coaching and athletic department staff, multiple student-athlete scholarships and generous university funding for top-notch facilities and equipment.

However, for decades, multiple HBCUs were denied state funding by legislators who long viewed those institutions as inferior. From preventing HBCUs from offering higher scholarships to students to underfunding athletic programs, inequality still affects these institutions today.

"HBCU softball produces a competitive space where we are not a number on a team. We have to uncover other ways to stand out," owner of the HBCU Softball Instagram account and Winston-Salem softball alum Kiah Ruffin said. "It can be challenging because most HBCUs don't have the money to purchase expensive equipment and rehab. They have to be creative when it comes to training their athletes. This is when you can really tell who has raw talent."

Working from the ground up and fighting for an equal playing field, HBCU softball coaches are working hard to bring notable athletes and winning records to their schools, while university administrators are actively fighting for financial equality.

The hard work has already started paying off.

After losing to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Norman Regional, the Morgan State Bears concluded their historic 2021 season with a 24-17 record. Morgan State finished with a season-high six consecutive wins, earned their first MEAC Tournament championship and made the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

"I think that people want a family fit, where everyone in the athletic department knows you because although they are understaffed, they do know you," Tyson said. "For some people, the easier route is to go to a ready-made program, but you can be Odicci (Alexander) at the right HBCU. That isn't the common choice, but be uncommon."

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