25 Years of Howard Softball

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By Rob Knox, Howard Athletics Consultant

WASHINGTON – Howard University softball program began with a few photographs adorning the walls of Kenicia Cross‘ room. The Bison did not have a team, a field or a coach.

A San Diego native, Cross figured her dream of playing collegiate softball was shattered after being injured as a high school senior.

“I thought my softball career was over,” Cross said. “So, I focused on picking a school that I would like and have a good time. Plus, I had an aunt who went to Howard. Once I got there, some of my friends saw the pictures on my wall of me playing softball and asked about them. Then, they shared that they also played softball.”

As she unpacked and settled into her room in 1999, Cross still had a vision and hope. Thanks to the numerous snapshots hanging proudly, Cross’ dream became a reality.

“Next thing you know, we ended up getting a group of girls together and used word of mouth about playing intramural softball,” Cross said. “We got enough girls to play and we ended up at Banneker Field, just neighborhood kids playing at the neighborhood park. Howard saw that we were serious about wanting to be a team. They hired a coach and we were like, ‘this is going to happen.’ Our coaches were the bomb. This was my first time with a Black coach and playing with Black girls. It was a whole new experience and it opened my eyes.”

Cross could not contain her excitement once the Bison got uniforms and a schedule of contests.

“It was rough the first year because we were just a bunch of volunteer players who played softball at some point in their lives who wanted to play in college,” Cross recalled. “The roster featured some standout players and girls, who played youth league ball. The second year though, the coach recruited a pitcher and key players.”

The rest is history.

From those humble beginnings, Howard softball blossomed into a strong program, winning a pair of Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournament championships in 2007 and 2022. Howard also participated in the NCAA Tournament in each of those years, going to Arizona in 2007 and Florida State in 2022.

The Bison are celebrating 25 years of softball excellence this season. Cross will be the keynote speaker during Howard Softball’s 25th anniversary celebration weekend from April 12-14. The Bison will host Coppin State in a weekend series.

In between the championship years, a sacred sisterhood that spanned generations coalesced into something magical. There have been countless Bison players who earned many accolades, accomplished milestones, made an impact and enjoyed the moments behind the scenes that shaped this unique program.

Of course, it is challenging to condense 25 years into a few paragraphs.

The first coach in Howard’s history was Tonja Braxton. Her enthusiastic spirit pores through current head coach Tori Tyson, who connects the dots from the past, making sure the current players realize they are part of the Howard softball legacy. It was a reason why during the HBCU Classic earlier this year in Georgia, Tyson halted her team’s warm-up to allow former pitcher Dale McNeal, an All-MEAC pitcher and member of the 2007 Howard championship team, to address them.

“I want my team to know that somebody came before you and went through the same journey,” Tyson said. “We want to make sure the names of the past stay alive in our program. I am excited for my current student-athletes to learn and listen from the players of the past so that they can appreciate the pride of Howard softball. There’s never a wrong time to connect those dots.”

Braxton laughed as she recalled the first few years of the Howard softball program. It was intramural at first where they played games against outside competition. Ultimately, the Bison started competing in the MEAC in 2001, according to softball records from the MEAC website. In addition to taking over head softball coaching duties, Braxton was the Assistant Athletics Director for Academics. She had a full plate.

“My Athletics Director at the time, told me this is how this will work, if you win a bunch of games and kids do not graduate, we will have a problem,” Braxton said. “If they graduate and you do not win, then we will have a problem. The struggle was trying to balance everything because we were not as talented at first as I wanted us to be. It was like building an airplane as you are trying to fly it. We worked like dogs and some of the players are probably still traumatized.”

Before the program soared, it had to navigate its home field near campus in which players regularly stepped over debris. The field also had wild weeds growing between the dirt. Braxton remembers the field not being what she envisioned as a regular softball facility. Players had to tend to the field each day before practice.

“The truth was we were grateful to have somewhere to play and call our own,” said Cross, who was Howard’s first All-MEAC softball selection in 2003. “Nobody expected us to be good. We were a distinctively diverse group of girls who were fearless and had a lot of fun. We were happy to be there and play at Banneker. If it were not for Coach Braxton and the rest of the staff investing their resources, Howard softball would not be here today. They turned it into something.”

Eight years after beginning the program, the Bison were champions in 2007, following a 17-0 victory over North Carolina A&T State University at Randazzo Softball Park in Severn, Maryland. Howard’s Courtney Young earned Outstanding Performer accolades after leading the Bison with two hits, including a home run, three RBIs and two runs scored in the game, while Braxton was named the Outstanding Coach.

Howard, who earned the fourth seed, hit four home runs and starting pitcher McNeal tossed a one-hit shutout a day after being lit up like a Christmas tree in which she allowed two grand slams. Braxton had faith that McNeal would rebound.

“I told her, I don’t know why they hit you so hard today, but I am going right back with you tomorrow,” Braxton said. “I told Dale that if we were going to beat them it was going to have to be with her best. I wanted to reassure her although she did have a bad outing; we were still going to go with her in the big game. There is a little bit of luck in winning the tournament. The journey to get there was stressful. Probably, my proudest moment was when we were in the dugout celebrating and I got to call my parents at home and tell them ‘We did it.’ I remember being emotional talking to my parents. That was a feel-good moment. You go from winning no games to a third of your games to half of your games and then having a winning record. If it does not challenge you, then it is not going to change you. If we had not taken those whippings, we wouldn’t have known how to show up in the big moments.”

McNeal, Young and Jennifer Bien-Aime earned a spot on the MEAC All-Tournament team following their performances. Also, during the championship game, Brianne Gutierrez had a three-hit, three-RBI performance and Fallon Jones added two RBIs for the Bison. This was the highlight of McNeal’s career and who is glad she attended Howard.

“Even though I was recruited by other schools, I felt welcomed by the team here,” McNeal recalled. “I felt like I could make a difference here. I saw a lot of change and growth in my four years and it was important to me that I helped turn the program around. We went from not winning to being a winning team. The girls I went to the championship game with are super tight and always in our group chat. Making memories while we were at Howard was special. Now to see everybody grow with their families, their kids and careers is great to see.”

The Bison won consecutive regular season Northern Division championships in 2009 and 2010. With All-MEAC players Young, Christine Sborz and Nicole Saez anchoring Howard, the 2010 squad went 14-1 in winning the Northern Division, which was a program record for regular season conference victories until the 2022 team won 17 MEAC contests.

Tyson has been at Howard since 2018 and she is transformed the Bison into a lean-mean winning machine. A program-best eight Bison earned All-MEAC honors in 2022: Victoria Brown; Analise De La Roca; Kalita Dennis; Camille Navarro; Payton Quinonez; Lealani Ricks; Alyssa Vasquez and Alyssa Watson. Navarro was the 2021 MEAC Player of the Year and Kiana Carr took home the 2021 MEAC Pitcher of the Year.

Dennis, who became the first Howard player in program history to be named to the 2020 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Watch List, remembers a special moment following the Bison’s 5-4 championship victory over Morgan State in 2022. It was a sacred bond.

“When we won, Mackenzie Steele texted me to congratulate me,” Dennis said. “I told her that this win was for all of us. All the stories they shared laughing, knowing it was not funny then and all the past players I feel connected to even though I have not met them. Playing for Howard meant making a legacy. Not just from my current teammates and me, but for black and brown girls all over. It represented sisterhood, making things happen and yet striving for excellence like Howard’s motto. To win the championship was a huge exhale and pat on the back. Nothing came to us easy and yet we made it happen. It reflected a lot on what minority women do every day.”

Aside from winning, Tyson had a major goal when she arrived at Howard.

“When I took the job, I was intentional in connecting with our alumni,” Tyson said. “It required asking questions. I started a Facebook alumni group and I asked them what it was like during their time at Howard. They were receptive. The greater feeling was seeing the Facebook excitement they displayed after we won in 2022 because they know that we understand none of this (success) is possible without their sacrifices. Keeping their names alive is important to me.”

Cross enjoys the wonders of technology, allowing her to follow Howard from across the country. Competing with all the passion of asphalt simmering in the summer sun, the Bison are 24-7 (8-1 MEAC) through March 30. It is one of the best starts in program history.

“It’s amazing and watching how good they are now,” Cross said. “They are good. Oh my gosh. I am not surprised because it is Howard and it is the best of everything. You always want to be the best. It is in your blood. How cool is it to be a softball player and go to Howard? It’s the best of both worlds.”

Through hard work, faith and belief, Cross’ softball career did not end when she started decorating her room as a freshman. Rather, her resilience and character empowered her to effect change. Now, as a prominent talent agent, she helps others in realizing their dreams.

Cross is deeply gratified to witness the current Howard team building upon the legacy of their predecessors. They are also establishing a championship standard for future Bison to exceed. She is also thankful for the lessons learned during her tenure, contributing to the program’s growth and success.

“I just wanted an opportunity to keep playing,” Cross said. “This had to be my purpose and I was in alignment with God. He opened the door. When you are young, you do not know what none of that means. I was like ‘Oh my gosh’, my dream is still happening, and could not believe it. This was a true testament that when God makes you a promise, you hold on to it until the end. You will not see how it could happen, but if you keep believing it can happen, it will. I always had a vision that I was going to play and one day, I looked up and I was playing college softball.”

Just think, Cross’ photographs enabled numerous other women to see their softball aspirations come to fruition by embodying Howard’s legacy and spirit.

NOTES: There will be an alumni reception Friday, April 12. The doubleheader against Coppin State, set for Saturday, April 13, is designated “Alumni Day” where the Bison will recognize all alumni and winners from the 2007 and 2022 teams who come to town.

For more information, visit the Bison Athletics website at www.HUBison.com.