Photo by Liberty Athletics / Story by Bradey King
Playing at the Division I level is challenging, overwhelming and even intimidating at times, but the Liberty University softball program combats that fear with a strong faith. Currently sitting at the top of the Big South Conference and coming off an incredible postseason NISC victory last year, the Lady Flames continue to get better day after day with the guidance of their fearless leader, head coach Dot Richardson.
Richardson is considered one of the most decorated collegiate, national and international players in softball history. She was a 5-time All-American, 3-time MVP at UCLA, 2-time Gold Medalist for Team USA and has been inducted into multiple Halls of Fame. Additional titles she holds are author, sports reporter, non-profit owner, orthopedic surgeon and now coach. Above all else she is a proud Christian, committed to leading the group of young women at Liberty to become not only great players, but people too.
Richardson was named 2017 Big South Softball Coach of the Year, the same season she coached the Big South Freshman of the Year, Big South Pitcher of the Year and Big South Scholar-Athlete of the Year. She also coached four players to NFCA All-Regional mention.
“Last season was definitely a hallmark year. The whole team started growing together in the sport, and also in their faith because as a Christian school we have the opportunity to bond through bible studies,” said Richardson.
Prior to the (Triple Crown) NISC last season, the team took the first seed into the Big South Conference tournament where they made it all the way to the winner-take-all title game against rival Longwood. Longwood handed the Flames their first loss of the tournament a few days earlier, forcing Liberty to work through the loser’s bracket, ultimately meeting up with Longwood again. They beat undefeated Longwood 9-3 in Game 1 to push a final game. In Game 2, the Lady Flames made a few crucial errors and weren’t able to capitalize on scoring opportunities, which resulted in becoming the Big South runner-up for the fifth time in program history.
“In that heartbreak and disappointment, we hear that we’ve been invited to the NISC. And then we have a second chance, a second chance to change and wipe that memory and to accomplish something more with this team, our season wasn’t over. I realize God had a bigger plan than we could’ve ever imagined,” added Richardson.
The Lady Flames came out with a renewed fire at the NISC. They went undefeated until falling 1-0 in a 12-inning NISC Regional Championship battle which led to an all too familiar winner-take all situation. The team was resilient and responded with a 4-3 victory over Ohio to win the Region and move on to round one of the NISC Championship. They lost round one, putting them, once again in a tough spot. The team was resilient, fighting their way back to the title game against undefeated Lamar. Determined to change their notorious postseason outcome, the Lady Flames didn’t hold back and beat Lamar twice to claim the program’s first-ever postseason championship.
2018 has been nothing short of amazing for Richardson’s squad. She talked about how at the NISC, something just ‘clicked’ for her team. They began to play completely guided by faith rather than playing it safe with the fear of making a mistake and that has carried over into this season.
“The NISC experience was something our players needed. That experience was priceless. I was at a point at the NISC where I was just enjoying watching my team play with total freedom. They realized you can compete at a high level and you can have fun if you can trust the gifts Gods given you,” she said. “I encourage all the teams that may have not reached that goal they want of postseason NCAA to have that chance at a National Championship through the NISC, because it will help to shape your athletes and your program in a way that might be that next step that you need. And we needed it. And we experienced it, and it’s a great memory.”
Two standouts on the Lady Flames roster are twins, Amber and Autumn Bishop. Although their coach says they are different in some ways, their stats are nearly identical. Autumn leads the team with a .378 batting average and is backed up by Amber with a .371 average. Amber was named 2017 Big South Freshman of the Year and Autumn was the first freshman in program history to be named first team all-region.
“The stats speak for themselves in regards to performance. But what they bring is a work ethic that the other players can watch and see, not only do they have God given gifts, they don’t rest on that talent, they work hard all the time. They are not only sisters, but best friends. This game is such a part of them and in order to reach the next level it needs to be. It shouldn’t define you, but should be an expression of your passion,” said Richardson.
Both Bishops were instrumental at the NISC and Richardson was proud to share that they’ve recently told her about their dream of playing in the Olympics just like their coach. Another key member of the roster is 2017 Big South Pitcher of the Year, Julia DiMartino.
“Jules without a doubt is our workhorse. She’s our ace in the circle,” added Richardson.
DiMartino was a dominating force all season long, especially in the postseason. She posted a 3-1 record with a 1.38 ERA in 25 1/3 innings pitched at the NISC, including five relief appearances.
“It was definitely a big eye opener to know that our team is at that level. It gave us a lot of confidence going into this season,” said DiMartino.
In high school DiMartino suffered a torn labrum in her right shoulder, resulting in surgery and having to sit out during her senior season. She mentioned being a little tentative and having to ease back into things during her freshman year at Liberty. She didn’t feel like she was at her full-potential that year. However, she set Liberty freshman records with 17 wins, seven shutouts and 187 strikeouts, giving no hints that she was recovering from a serious injury.
Julia’s older sister, Alyssa, pitched at Liberty from 2011-2014.
“To be completely honest, I didn’t want to go to Liberty for that reason. I wanted to be my own person and have my own experience. But the offer and the coaches and new facilities persuaded me. I love it here,” said DiMartino.
The Lady Flames are on a roll with one Big South series left against Winthrop. And although it’s rare to see this late in the season, Richardson strategically mixed in some tough non-conference games against North Carolina and Virginia coming up as well.
“My goal is to have our schedule as competitive as possible. We played North Carolina at the Mary Nutter Classic in the second weekend and we beat them 3-2 and I wanted to see where we are now. Then get to our conference play, have some competitive mid-week games, and then see where we are postseason playing those teams again. Our team is responding and we are better than we were in the beginning of the season,” said Richardson.
While sitting at number one in the Big South with a lot of potential for success in the postseason is extremely exciting, Richardson continually revisits how blessed they are just to have the opportunity to compete.
“We have an opportunity to glorify the Lord in a big way through our game instead of just talking about records, it’s a bigger drive and a bigger mission,” she added.