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Xavier University of Louisiana starts softball program even during the pandemic

Players and coaches hope this starts a pipeline of talent to the school

Heading into Xavier University of Louisiana’s (XULA) first game of the season against Texas A&M-Texarkana, Gold Nuggets head coach Leslie Ballard wasn’t sure what to expect. When people asked her what she thought about the team going into the game, she’d reply, “I don’t know.”

So when XULA went down 3-0 in the first two innings of that game Feb. 5, she was eager to see how they would respond. Powered by multiple runs in the fifth and sixth innings, the Gold Nuggets rallied to win the game 6-4.

The comeback win marked the first in program history.

“Oh, OK, we might do something,” Ballard said, laughing about her reaction to the victory. “I’m very proud of my girls and how they brought this team together, and they’ve figured it out in this short period of time.”

Just a year ago, intercollegiate softball didn’t exist in New Orleans. XULA athletic director Jason Horn saw an opportunity for a team at his school.

“I really like softball,” Horn said. “I’ve been at other softball schools, and I’ve seen the energy that softball programs bring to other campuses. I see the energy that they have in the facility, so it was just a good time to look at softball.”

In their first season, the Gold Nuggets are getting some help from the big leagues. They practice and play home games at the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy at Wesley Barrow Stadium. They share the space with the baseball team, which is playing for the first year since 1960.

“For the city’s greater New Orleans region, this is a huge deal,” said Eddie Davis, director of the MLB Academy New Orleans. “You have a pipeline of talent that can be groomed from 6, 7 years old. They can watch Xavier women play, and now they have a true road map that they can feel and touch. I think that’s the beauty of it.”

XULA hired Ballard, who was previously the head coach of Lane College in March 2020. Ballard was just seven days into crafting a new softball program when the university closed down due to the pandemic.

As if building a new program wasn’t already hard enough, the first-year head coach was forced to build a roster virtually, limiting her chances to see recruits play and build a connection. Ballard would be recruiting students to play softball at a historically Black college and university (HBCU) amid a global pandemic that was disproportionately affecting Black and brown people.

“I’ve never been on the phone so much in my life,” Ballard said. “I got to see maybe three girls, if that, actually play.”

The pandemic’s uncertainty also made it challenging for the student-athletes Ballard was recruiting to give her a firm commitment.

“I would call these girls and their families, and they’re just like, ‘I don’t know right now. We have to wait and see,’ ” she said. “I had a girl who was committed, and then her mom lost her job, so she had to decommit.”

Ballard ended up getting 23 commitments, but only 16 women joined the team. The remaining student-athletes were unable to commit due to hardships caused by the pandemic.

Xavier University of Louisiana outfielder Endya Gillard: “Softball has always been an escape for me, so I forget COVID is even a thing when I am on the field.”

Xavier University of Louisiana

XULA, a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, isn’t playing in a conference this season. XULA athletes play in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, but there aren’t enough softball teams at other schools to form a conference.

Because of this, Ballard has to find games to play. This would be challenging in a normal season, but it has been extremely difficult during a pandemic.

Besides weekly COVID-19 tests, the team is tested 48 hours before its games and tested twice after games. Ballard has to ensure that the teams she schedules are testing in the same way that XULA is.

She says there have been multiple occasions where games have been scheduled and XULA finds out later that a team wasn’t on the same testing cycle as the Gold Nuggets, forcing a cancellation.

So far, there have been no positive COVID-19 cases on the team. For the athletes, the extra protocols have become a part of their daily routine. Some aren’t fazed by the COVID-19 restrictions anymore.

“When I am playing, it does not even feel like COVID is a thing,” said first-year outfielder Endya Gillard. “I don’t even remember until I go back into the dugout and we put our masks on. Softball has always been an escape for me, so I forget COVID is even a thing when I am on the field.”

On the field, players are getting used to their new teammates, so there is room for improvement in chemistry. So far, XULA is 2-7 this season. Their next contest will be a doubleheader with William Carey on Tuesday.

“The hardest thing is that we are not 110% sure of everyone’s tendencies,” said Destyn Jones, a junior transfer from Jackson State. “At my old school, I would know that if the girl next to me makes an error, we need to cheer her up, so she’s not in her head, or with another girl, we need to leave her alone because she plays better that way.”

One of Jones’ favorite things about playing at XULA is that she and her teammates make history every game.

“The best part is that we’re the first,” the New Orleans native said. “We get to set the culture. We get to set records, we get to be the first in the uniforms, we get to put Xavier softball on the map and make history.”

Kris Rhim is a senior communications/sports journalism major from Philadelphia. He is a varsity track athlete at Springfield College and the co-host of Liberty, Justice, and Ball, a podcast focused on the intersection of basketball and social justice.