Top Five College Softball Coaching Hires Of The Offseason
Thirty-nine different Division I programs said goodbye—in one way or another—to their head coach this offseason. From legendary head coach Carol Hutchins hanging it up after a Hall of Fame career at Michigan to first-year head coaches taking over their first program, the college softball landscape saw a ton of turnover this summer.
Below are the five best head coaching hires from this offseason.
Trisha Ford, Texas A&M
The Aggies finished off the Jo Evans era with a 20-0 blowout loss to Oklahoma in regionals. An SEC team that hasn’t reached the Women’s College World Series since 2017, Texas A&M needed to make the right hire to get back on track and on par with other powerhouse teams, especially now that Texas and OU are set to join the conference. Enter Trisha Ford, a decorated leader who’s been coaching since 2002, heading three different teams across the last two decades.
She’s already lost Haley Lee and has an uphill battle trying to compete for recruits in the same geographical region as top 25 teams like Texas and OU. However, Ford’s first head coaching job ended with turning around a St. Mary’s team that went 17-37 in her first year. After nearly a decade as an assistant coach at Stanford, Ford took over Fresno State, finishing first in the Mountain West Conference in her final two seasons. Then she jumped to Arizona State and quickly turned the Sun Devils into a WCWS contender.
Ford now takes on a once-juggernaut A&M team in transition, in search of an identity and new direction following the departure of Evans after 26 years.
Sharonda McDonald-Kelley, Michigan St.
Michigan State hasn’t had a winning season since 2016, its first since 2007. It’s been nearly two decades since the Spartans stood as a nationally-ranked team under Jacquie Joseph, who retired at the end of last season following her 29th year with MSU. Michigan State opted to go for an up-and-coming coach in McDonald-Kelley, who played at Texas A&M before seven years of professional softball.
McDonald-Kelley joins the Spartans after four seasons with Campbell. She led the program to two of its five NCAA Regional berths in program history, including the last two seasons. McDonald-Kelley also brings with her 10 years of coaching experience at Ohio State, Florida, Texas Tech, LSU, Ohio and Texas Southern. That’s valuable when taking over a Big Ten program that hasn’t seen sustained success in 20 years and has to compete with schools like the Buckeyes, Northwestern and in-state rival Michigan.
McDonald-Kelley may be able to connect with the next generation of softball players, bridging the gap between the experience of Joseph and the new era of name, image and likeness.
Stephanie VanBrakle Prothro, Memphis
After working as the pitching coach for Alabama since 2012, VanBrakle Prothro takes over a Memphis team looking to rebound after a challenging 2021 season, one where it won just two games in the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers, despite having a few recent seasons finishing a few games above .500, haven’t gotten out of a conference tournament since they were members of Conference USA in 2011.
The Crimson Tide had an overall ERA of just 2.28 last season, while striking out 439 batters en route to earning a bid to host the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional, where they were upset by Stanford. VanBrakle Prothro spent one season as the head coach of Samford after two years as the head coach of Birmingham-Southern. While Samford finished 14-40 during her lone season, BSU finished 57-14 during her time as head coach.
She gets a second chance, this time at leading a much larger program, one that has a limited window to make a move in the AAC before it permanently gets left behind as a group of five program.
Craig Nicholson, Akron
Nicholson returns to the Mid-American Conference after leading Texas A&M Kingsville to a 174-72 record, becoming the winningest coach in program history. The former three-time MAC Coach of the Year—all with Ball State—has become a decorated head coach dating back to his 11 years at Central Arizona College, where he won four National Junior College Athletic Association championships.
Athletic Director Charles Guthrie has hit hirings out of the park across other sports, such as football and men’s basketball, and bringing in Nicholson, who knows how to build a winner at a smaller program, seems like the next successful hire.
Akron also has just four rostered upperclassmen, so it’ll be an uphill battle for Nicholson, who will try to attract talent in a softball hotbed. The Zips are also in the business of cutting sports programs over the last few years (specifically baseball), so Nicholson will be tasked with ensuring the Zips see there is value in funding a once-decimated softball program.
Natalie Poole, Southern Miss
VanBrakle Prothro is replacing the outgoing Poole at Memphis, who resigned following a 16-38 season and compiled an overall record of 241-340. Just the second head coach in Memphis history, Poole had a record-breaking year in 2018, when the Tigers went 37-21, setting program season records for wins, batting average, hits, runs scored and runs batted in.
Former head coach Brian Levin improved Southern Miss’ record from 2021 to 2022 before resigning to spend more time with family. So Poole stands as one of the only coaches taking over a team with a record above .500. The question is whether or not Poole can find similar success to what she had in 2018 with Memphis. Poole has a good crop of young players looking to build off of last year’s 29 wins.
She’s also enjoyed sustained success at stops like McNeese State, where she guided the Cowgirls to three consecutive 30-win seasons. She did that at her alma mater after seven seasons with Georgia Southern, where she only had one losing conference campaign.