Paige Neely was the Christmas gift Kristin Ryman did not expect — and one that continues to show its value.
Around Thanksgiving break last fall, Neely decided she no longer wanted to play softball at Austin Peay, which had brought in a new coaching staff after her freshman season. With a desire to stay in state and relationships with a couple former high school teammates, Lipscomb quickly became her top choice and she planned to enroll for the spring semester. But Ryman, the Bisons’ eighth-year head coach, figured the slugger would have to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.
Instead, Austin Peay granted Neely a full release, which meant she was eligible to play when the season started in February. Over the next three months, the former Goodpasture standout has provided a welcome spark for the Bisons.
“Paige has been a huge addition,” Ryman said. “She is somebody that I sit and wonder now at this point of the season, with everything she has done, her athleticism and how she has filled the role of that three hitter and defensively how valuable she has been, it is hard to think about where we would be with her not being a part of that.”
Adding another power bat boosted Lipscomb, which hosts the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament for the first time. The six-team, double-elimination event begins Wednesday and runs through Saturday at Draper Diamond. Lipscomb (32-22, 18-8) earned the No. 4 seed and plays No. 5 seed Kennesaw State at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Neely helped put them in a position to challenge for the title, which the Bisons last won in 2010.
The left-handed hitter leads the team with 37 RBIs and ranks second in batting average (.327), home runs (nine), doubles (eight), runs scored (36) and hits (56). Only leadoff hitter and former high school teammate Brittany Elmore has hit for a better average (.342).
“When she said she was thinking about [transferring] I was definitely excited,” Elmore said. “I knew she would be a good fit for our team. I definitely coerced here — I tried to anyways — to get her to come to Lipscomb.”
Both Neely and Elmore were named to the All-Atlantic Sun Conference first team on Tuesday. Elmore joined pitcher Tanner Sanders and infielder Mickey Bell on the all-freshman team. Outfielder Gracy Aguirre was named to the second team.
Having played shortstop at Austin Peay, where she batted .363 and was named second-team All-Ohio Valley Conference, Neely started this season in centerfield. When Kelsey Cartwright, another former Goodpasture teammate, went down with an injury, she moved to third base. Ryman also moved Neely to Cartwright’s spot in the lineup, third.
At the same time, the Bisons began to catch fire. They won five of their last six conference series and stunned then-No. 24 USC Upstate by taking two of three.
“Things just started clicking,” Ryman said. “I don’t think it happened overnight but once everybody got comfortable, with their new role, their new place in the lineup, who they were hitting around, things just started to click. We got to that point where we couldn’t rely so heavily on one or two hitters anymore. We had to have production top to bottom. I think it kind of allowed some other people to relax and feel confident in themselves.
“Now all of a sudden, instead of being an afterthought they were a key, key part of our lineup — Paige being one of them.”
Neely admitted she had jitters when she first arrived.
Without participating in fall practices and scrimmages, she worried she wouldn’t fit right in. Instead, her new — and old — teammates embraced her.
“When I first got here in January I was a little nervous but they were really, really welcoming,” Neely said. “That made me feel comfortable so they made me feel a part of the team. They made me play well. I wasn’t happy at Austin Peay. I just decided that I wanted to be challenged and be a part of a good, solid program. So Lipscomb was the place for me.”