Above photo courtesy of UMHB Athletics Department
CLEVELAND, Miss.-Lexi Harris’ senior season has gone perhaps even better than expected.
The UMHB softball team’s starting center fielder, she is one of just two Crusaders, starting shortstop Milly Cesare being the other, to have started all 40 games for the team this season. In those 40 games, she has become the only player in the lineup to be hitting for a batting average above .400, at .405, and her 53 hits lead the Cru by a wide margin.
But for Harris personally, the stats, though certainly a confidence booster, have not been what has made this season memorable.
“This year, I feel like I have grown, not just in my stats, but being a person who’s there for the younger ones on the team, as a mentor and a leader,” Harris said. “I try to encourage them along the way. That has shaped me and helped me grow into the player I am today.”
The leadership of Harris, and the other seniors on the roster has been seen. Because even the younger players, seeing significant amounts of action, have both grown and contributed to only the third 30-win season in the program’s D-III history.
“We have really come together as a team and learned to play as one,” Harris noted. “I think we’ve meshed really well together. That certainly helps us achieve success.”
UMHB enters the ASC Tournament as the No. 3 seed, set to play its opening round game this afternoon at 4 p.m. against the McMurry. A win today puts the Cru into a double-elimination bracket that begins Friday.
The top seed in the tournament is Belhaven, but the Crusaders, with a win, would play the No. 2 seed for the right to advance into the tournament. And that No. 2 seed is ETBU.
Almost exactly four weeks ago, UMHB went on the road as an unranked team and shutout national power ETBU, then No. 6 in the country, in game two. Though the Crusaders were unable to complete the series win, it marked a major moment in the program’s history, considering nobody in the current roster had ever experienced a win over the Tigers. Since that series, the Cru has not lost, with 12 straight victories, and ascended to a No. 12 national ranking.
“I didn’t play well the weekend we beat ETBU, but just as a team, beating them in that one game [has to be the memory that sticks out],” Harris said. “They’ve never been a huge rival towards me, because I’ve been here three years. But for some of the girls who have been here longer, they’d never had the chance to beat them. That was something I’ll never forget.”
Harris certainly holds experience playing in critical games, whether they be in a tournament setting or not. In her lone year at Blinn Junior College, she was part of a roster that went 44-15 and won two games in the Region XIV Tournament. The year before, as Normangee High School’s first baseman, Harris went 2-for-4 in the state semifinal, helping lead her team to a state championship game appearance. In fact, the year she got to UMHB was the first in quite some time that the native of Marquez, Texas did not play in the postseason. And that was not because of the team’s performance. Rather, Covid was to blame. Harris believes that squad, like the three others she has played with since, had the talent to reach a high level of success.
“We were upset because we were really thriving,” she said recently, recalling the cancellation of the 2020 season. “We were in Arizona playing in a tournament and when we got back, that’s when the season was canceled. Everybody was in disbelief.”
That experience has made her more aware of both the big and small successes she has been a part of throughout the last two years.
“I think about that regularly,” Harris said,“how that season would have ended. I take motivation from that and remember not to take anything for granted, because none of us thought that could happen where our season could be cut short. That made me and some of the other girls realize that we should take each game as if it’s our last, and we play as one and play hard.”
She has done that and more. Her aggressiveness makes her a key contributor to the Cru, and her work ethic, has left a lasting impact during her final collegiate season.
“As a leader and a senior on the team it’s not as much demanding things of people but leading by example,” Harris said. “I like to make sure for even little things that if the coach isn’t looking, I’m still make sure I’m giving 100 percent. That way the ones watching me see that and want to follow.”
And while that is a impact she hopes will continue throughout the next several years, as the freshmen and sophomores from this year’s team take the reigns in seasons to come, there’s an additional part of leadership that does not necessarily include running hard for a flyball or sprinting to first base after making contact with a pitch .
“The main impact I want to leave on the team would probably be being kind,” Harris said. “ It’s nerve racking coming in for your first year and it’s crazy to think I’m already a senior here because it feels like I just got here. But other people being kind and welcoming me, that’s the impact I want to leave.”
Her senior year is not over yet. And if the Crusaders have it their way, it will not be over for a couple of weeks, as a trip to the NCAA Tournament remains a legitimate goal. But no matter what happens the next couple of days in Mississippi, Harris is just thankful for another chance to compete.
“I’m ecstatic [for the ASC Tournament].” Harris said. “But now that I’m a senior, every time we play a game, I try to take everything in. You never know when a game could be your last, especially in the ASC Tournament. So I just try to enjoy every moment and not take anything for granted. If I have a small setback, I try to look at the positives and work my way through it. It’s an overwhelming joy to be able to do what I love to do.”