Hendrickson builds a winner

LEXINGTON, Ky. – When Shawn Hendrickson took over as the Transylvania University head softball coach, he was the fourth coach in the last five years for a program that went 45-65 from 2011-14.

So what’s the first thing he wanted to bring to a floundering program? Confidence.

“Unless you have that swagger and belief in yourself, it doesn’t make a difference what you do,” Hendrickson said. “So we just kind of come after you.”

This year, in his second season as head coach, Hendrickson led Transylvania to its first Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Championship in five years and a 26-13 record.

“It was a little bit surprising coming off a 13-23 season,” Hendrickson said of his team’s conference title. “Last year we didn’t have enough of everything to get us over that hump; we just hit a brick wall. This year, the positional competition started early on and I think it changed everything.”

For their season, Transylvania swept the postseason awards with junior Krista DeBurger being named MVP (.408, 15 home runs) and Jamie Lutes selected as the Pitcher of the Year (2.70 ERA, 45 strikeouts in 93 1/3 innings). Hendrickson was also named Coach of the Year.

“It’s a humbling scenario,” Hendrickson said of being named Coach of the Year. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t cool.

“For me, the more important thing is we got the MVP and the Pitcher of the Year That allowed me to be Coach of the Year. It’s never about me, it’s about the kids. I love my kids to death. We’re a family and I’m glad they’re able to get the accolades they deserve.”

It wasn’t a thrilling win or an extended winning streak that started having Hendrickson and his team believe they had a special group – instead, it was a pair of losses. On March 25, Transylvania fell 10-1 against Trine University before playing a much tighter game in the nightcap, losing 8-7.

“They kicked our rear end,” Hendrickson said. “(Trine’s) been one of the top teams in the nation – especially in our region. We scheduled them to see what we could do.

“When we came back and lost by one run, that was when I realized we were OK. We would be all right. If we could compete with this team, we could compete with any team in our conference.”

After the Trine sweep, Transylvania closed the regular season going 20-4, including a 14-game winning streak. Transylvania clinched the conference in the final game of the regular season in a doubleheader against Anderson University – who won the previous five conference titles.

In Game 1, Anderson topped Transylvania 6-2 before Transylvania would capture the conference title with a 9-5 win in eight innings in the nightcap.

“We got (to Anderson) and had a two-hour rain delay and sat in the vans waiting,” Hendrickson said. “Pulled the tarp, had 30 minutes to warmup when we usually have 90 and played the first game and got beat.

“I talked to (the team) in between games and you could just see it in their eyes, they wouldn’t get beat. I thought that was huge for those kids to do that.

“Unfortunately, I think I put a little bit too much on winning that instead of the tourney.”

Four days after winning the conference title, Transylvania’s season ended, as they fell 4-0, and 9-8 in nine innings, to Hanover College in the Heartland Conference Tournament.

While Hendrickson looks to mold Transylvania into a consistent model of success, it begins with recruiting. And that may be the biggest difference for Hendrickson – who previously lived in Lake Linden – between working at Transylvania and his six-year tenure as the head softball coach at Finlandia University.

“This is a totally different world,” Hendrickson said. “We’re top 15 percent academically in the nation. The university is right downtown in Lexington, right down from (the University of Kentucky). Not a slight to Finlandia, but all those things make recruiting easier. I have a lot of kids beating on my door.”

During his time at Finlandia, Hendrickson would regularly send 9,000 to 10,000 emails to get 100 responses. In the six years at Finlandia, Hendrickson had one athlete committed before Christmas. In this year’s upcoming class, he had nine athletes who committed by the end of last October.

And when an athlete signs on to play at Transylvania, they are expected to bring the same level of swagger and confidence that’s helped Hendrickson turn the program around.

“We didn’t come to be conference champions, we came to be national champions,” Hendrickson said. “That’s what I tell the kids when I recruit them. Because if you’re considering another D3 school and we beat you, at the end of the game I’m going to be smiling at you and telling you, ‘I told you so.'”