Balance, strength and speed are foundational elements in building a successful college softball program.
But during spring 2020, the Arkansas Tech University Golden Suns were focused on sharing a more important fundamental: reading.
After their season and semester was cut short by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, members of the ATU softball team recorded more than 20 videos in which they read some of their favorite childhood books. The videos were posted online and made available to the same Russellville School District children the Golden Suns regularly mentor as part of their community service efforts.
"Maintaining contact with our community is so important to us," said Kristina McSweeney, ATU head softball coach. "I thought that having the girls create read-aloud videos for our elementary-age students would help motivate them to continue reading during this difficult time. Being a reading specialist myself, I know how vital it is for kids to be reading daily and the vast improvements in learning and vocabulary acquisition that occur when children read and are read to on a consistent basis. I also felt that having our players read to these children would give the children hope and peace during a time of uncertainty.
"It was important for me to have the girls do something that could also be seen at any time so we were sure to post on all our social media outlets for parents to have easy access," continued McSweeney. "Having these kids watch our players read sends a clear message to our youth that reading is important and fun, especially when they see our amazing and talented Golden Suns participate."
Arkansas Tech finished top two in community service hours among all NCAA Division II softball programs during the 2019-20 academic year. Seven ATU programs finished top 10 in the nation in their respective sports this year (softball, football, volleyball, baseball, tennis, cross country and women's basketball) and Arkansas Tech led all NCAA Division II members in overall student-athlete service hours for 2019-20.
"Our softball program is based on school, softball and service," said McSweeney. "Community service is vital in order for us to make long-lasting connections with such a wonderful community. Russellville is an amazing place to live and work, and I like for our girls to invest in the community that gives to them. We try and do as much as we can to help all the organizations in Russellville, and we are constantly looking for our next adventure. The girls really do enjoy helping. Many have seen the benefits long term from giving their time to the community."
For McSweeney, who has led the Golden Suns to 289 victories, one Great American Conference regular season title (2016), two GAC Tournament crowns (2018 and 2019) and four NCAA Tournament appearances (2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019), the focus remains on building champions who can succeed beyond the final out.
"We want everyone to know that our players are not just student-athletes at Arkansas Tech," said McSweeney. "They are role models for young children in all ways, not just athletically or in the classroom. Service is a vital part of leadership and growth. It is from that growth that our players become successful, adult citizens."
Day 10 Freshman Kaitlynn Woodlee Pitcher/Utility pic.twitter.com/xsJHcO1riS— ATU Softball (@ATUSoftball) March 28, 2020