BIRMINGHAM — Looking to leave his former job wasn’t on A.J. Daugherty’s mind.
Daugherty swiftly built the Wallace State Community College softball program into one of the top junior programs at their level in the country. Over the past six seasons, Daugherty directed his teams to a 260-58 record. Over the past two seasons, his teams were 111-10. Wallace State played in the NJCAA national tournament in four of the five seasons it was held during his tenure.
Life was good.
Yet, earlier this week, Daugherty sat at a picnic table at Mary Bower Fields on the UAB campus, talking about the first games of his tenure as the UAB softball head coach. How did that happen?
“I’m a competitor,” Daugherty said. “It’s no secret that Division I softball is pretty much the pinnacle of our sport. We have pro leagues, and they’re still trying to lay a foundation for that. I hope they do, but, at this point, the most consistent top of our sport is Division I softball.”
He decided to take the leap.
“To be very transparent, I thrive in situations. I look for situations to be challenged,” Daugherty said. “We sort of had my last job at the top of our level. Other than winning a national championship, which we were going to do pretty soon, I felt like, we had pretty much checked all the boxes we could check there. When this opportunity presented itself, I saw it as a glowing challenge for an in-state guy that has relationships across the state, across the Southeast, to come in and build off something that Marla Townsend and Jimmy Kolaitis and Joe Guthrie have all laid foundational bricks on.”
Indeed, he took over a program that had foundational success. Townsend, the program’s first coach, won 532 games over 18 seasons, took her team to five successive NCAA Tournaments at one point, and her 2013 team advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals. Since she stepped away in 2017, however, the program has been through three head coaches.
“I think that was one of the reasons I might have been attracted to UAB,” said Daugherty, a University of Alabama graduate, who served as a student manager for one of the country’s top programs as an undergrad. “They are looking for stability here. I think one of the things that stood between our program and the success that we’re trying to build is not a lot of consistency of the leadership of our staff with the turnover of coaches. As an in-state guy, I’m not looking to move across the country for the next job. I’m not looking for the first ticket out of town. I’m looking to build something, and sort of tame this tiger ad have some consistency, starting with me and the staff.”
He's coming off his first weekend as the program’s head coach. The Blazers finished 2-3 in the McNeese State Cowgirl Classic with a pair of losses to Central Arkansas State and another to McNeese State. Daugherty said he considers both of those teams' NCAA Tournament possibilities.
“Overall, I felt pretty good coming out of the week,” Daugherty said. “I’d like to be a lot better than 2-3, but I think there are a lot of positives from the weekend that a 2-3 record doesn’t necessarily reflect.”
He liked the pitching depth provided by senior Sarah Cespeda, junior Leigha Kirby, sophomore Olivia Valkbak and freshman Caitlin Russell. Sophomore leadoff hitter Bella Wiggins batted .500 with nine hits, four runs, two doubles, four RBI and two steals. Senior catcher Sierra Frazier hit .313 with five hits, a double, a triple, two runs, six RBI and two steals. As a team, the Blazers were 11 of 14 on stolen base attempts.
Now, they move forward to this week's Blazer Bash, which includes Samford, Belmont, Lindenwood and Ball State and will take place Friday-Sunday. UAB plays Lindenwood and Belmont on Friday, two games against Ball State on Saturday and Belmont and Samford on Sunday.
"It's a big deal," Daugherty said. "Hopefully, we'll have a good crowd here. If we want to make this something special, then we got to have a good product. When we do have fans from the community come out and watch us, we want to put a good product on the field, something that's competitive, something that's fun to watch. I think that our style of play is fun to watch."
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