The Plant City High softball team has gotten used to change over the last four years. In fact, this year’s crop of seniors will graduate without having played for the same coach for more than one season.
For the underclassmen, new hire Ashley Bullion wants to make sure that they can’t say the same.
Bullion was hired in the last offseason to take over the successful Lady Raiders program in the wake of Maggie Fiex’s departure. Fiex, who led the team to a 20-7 record and a playoff appearance, left the job and Plant City for personal reasons after the 2014 season ended.
Athletic director Traci Durrance and the school wanted to make sure they’d find someone who would be in it for the long haul, even if they were a rookie coach.
Bullion, a Crystal River native, has been around the game of softball since age 7. She started at first base in all four of her years at Crystal River High and then took her talents to the University of South Florida’s program. It was there that she found her biggest coaching influence.
Head coach Ken Eriksen is a big name in softball circles. On top of coaching the successful Lady Bulls program since 1997, he’s also served as head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team. Under Eriksen, Bullion and her teammates went to the playoffs twice in five seasons, including a run that saw USF come just one win shy of making the 2006 Women’s College World Series.
“That was a big deal,” Bullion says. “We traveled all the way across the country to play one of the top teams in the nation, and it was an incredible experience.”
She says that playing for Eriksen opened her eyes to how well a good coach can affect a team’s play and took plenty of leaves from his book.
“He’s stern, but also nurturing — that’s what I aspire to be,” she says.
Throughout high school and college, Bullion also helped younger players with skill training. She graduated in 2011 with a masters degree in exercise science, but the training appointments stopped there.
MAKING A CHANGE
Bullion ended up in Mulberry, working in several jobs unrelated to coaching or training. She always knew that she’d wanted to coach, but the opportunity hadn’t come up.
“I said, ‘What am I doing with my life?’” she says.
This summer, she finally saw her shot when Plant City posted its opening. Although Bullion had no formal coaching experience in any role, she decided to go for it. Clearly, she did something right in the interview.
“I think that they saw my attitude and passion towards coaching,” Bullion says. “They’ve had four coaches in four years — they need somebody with a strong personality who can come in and take charge.”
Strong, indeed. From day one, Bullion came in and made it clear that no one on the team could get away with being lazy on the field or in the classroom.
“As soon as I came in, they thought I was crazy,” she says. “I was very strict, very on-point.”
Bullion is relaxed when it comes to academics, but only in the sense that good grades come first: If a Lady Raider is going to be late to practice because of tutoring or a test make-up, then there’s no problem there. Any other excuse, though, will probably not go over so well with the coach.
“I make sure they’re attending all their classes, sitting at the front, being respectful towards their teachers and staying on top of their studies,” Bullion says.
Keeping this team in its usual spot at or near the top of the district will be one of the biggest expectations for Bullion, as the team has won no fewer than 17 games per season in the last four years, even with all of those coaching changes. Fiex’s 2014 squad was the most successful yet, winning 20 games and advancing to the regional semifinals, and many of those players are still on the roster.
Bullion’s squad got off to a slow start, dropping its first two games, but she earned her first win as a coach Friday, Feb. 13 against Plant: a team that the Lady Raiders haven’t always been so lucky against.
“It was a big win for myself, and for the girls to see what they’re capable of,” Bullion says.
As of press time, Plant City has a 5-5 record, winning three of its last five games.
With plenty of relatives in Plant City, she’s already committed to sticking around for a while. After a handful of one-and-dones, that should be welcome news to Raider fans.
“My whole family lives here, and I have two little babies,” Bullion says. “My entire support system is here. I really don’t have anywhere else to go, and I don’t think I would leave my family.”
Bullion believes now that everyone’s getting more comfortable, she can help this team stay on the high level it’s been at for the past few years. Or if everything goes really well, exceed that.
“I keep telling them we’re capable of doing big things,” she says. “They just have to believe in what I’m preaching.”
Contact Justin Kline at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley Bullion has gotten to know her players, and expects big things from all of them. So, who’s looking likely to do big things for the Lady Raiders this year? Take it from her:
“Edmilly Molina had a really good season last year,” Bullion says. “Her and Bekah Schulte — she’s gonna be another one that’s a great hitter. Molina is just an all-around player.
Becca Sorenson is another all-around player and a threat for anybody. Once Schulte gets in her groove, she’s going to be a big threat. Powerful swing. She will be one of our go-to players once she gets in a groove.
And of course, there’s Noelle Dietrich, and Alexis Williams, who is also throwing good pitches this year.”