Before softball practice Monday, East Ridge coach Afton Murray took time to show her team a video.
The Raptors sat and watched a clip from the 2009 Women’s College World Series as Alabama coach Pat Murphy pinch-hit a freshman for a senior All-America with his team down two runs with the bases loaded.
The freshman hit a grand slam. The senior watched from the bench, cheering her on.
The themes — selflessness and teamwork, among others — are ones Murray is trying to bring to her program. The video was part of the team’s “Motivational Monday,” something Murray is trying to turn into a tradition as she makes her stamp on the Raptors in her second year at the helm.
This year, the team is focused on developing both on and off the field.
“That’s just something that we’re creating a big push for this year,” senior catcher Olivia Huffman said. “That’s something that I really noticed this year and last year is creating that team development and that team bonding.”
Murray has emphasized it even more as she settles into the upcoming season.
“Looking at last year and how things went, I think that being a first-year coach, I was trying to figure out day-to-day stuff, I don’t think that I did a very good job putting that kind of stuff — a lot of it has life lessons, too — at kind of the forefront of our program,” Murray said.
Murray served as an assistant under former coach Tom Nemo, a role that helped ease the transition when she took over the program.
But still, the new job was an adjustment as Murray was launched into new administrative responsibilities, among other things.
“I definitely feel more comfortable [this year]. … I feel like a little bit last year I was kind of trying to figure things out as we went. And I think having that year under my belt, I kind of know what to expect and [I’m] just trying to work ahead a little bit more,” she said.
That experience should help the Raptors — a team that finished 12-8 and won a section game before falling last season — move forward as Murray continues to mold the program’s culture into her own.
Though East Ridge finished above .500 last year, Murray said there were days where she was “trying to stay above water” in the new job.
Now, with a higher comfort level, she has identified and targeted areas of improvement.
“[I] wasn’t necessarily thinking beyond ‘What do we have to do today? What’s in front of me here?’ But I think now, having that experience, [I’m] able to look back and be like, ‘OK, we probably could’ve done better if we had spent more time talking about teamwork and how to motivate each other,’ ” Murray said.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by team members that she is devoting more time to that.
“Afton’s done a great job transforming this program into being a hardworking, encouraging environment so that people can really develop their skills and get a lot better,” Huffman said.
This season’s team has a lot of fresh faces after graduating seven seniors. But senior outfielder Makaela Egan said Murray has brought a different intensity, one that is necessary with the young team.
“I feel like now that she’s more comfortable, she’s going to do whatever she can and she’s going to push us harder than she ever has, and I think she’s definitely a lot more comfortable and that will help us in the end,” Egan said.
Betsy Helfand is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.