“It just feels different.”
Iowa State senior infielder Sami Williams wasn’t talking about wearing masks or social distancing in the dugout when she said the 2021 softball season feels different. She was describing her team—the 9-1 Iowa State Cyclones, who are enjoying the best start in program history.
That ninth win came on Sunday in a wild comeback victory against Ole Miss. After trailing 5-0 after three innings, Williams hit a home run to give the Cyclone offense a spark. But it was the intentional walk during her next at-bat that made Williams realize this season’s squad is special.
“I felt so confident in the lineup when I got intentionally walked. I had no doubts that the next one up was able to get it done,” Williams said. “And I think that’s something that has changed from previous years. I feel really confident about this team and I feel like the team as a whole can say that about anyone in the lineup and even people coming off the bench. We don’t have doubts or worries that someone won’t be able to get the job done.”
Williams said teammate Shannon Mortimer also felt the shift in confidence from past seasons.
“After the Ole Miss game, [Shannon] was talking about it and said, ‘I literally have chills.’ She started pitching that game and she felt like she didn’t have a great start, but she knew the rest of the pitchers were able to back her up. And as hitters, we were able to back them up and come in and help them and take the pressure off of them. And vice versa. We have confidence in each other.
“She’s (Mortimer) a junior and knows what it’s like to play in the Big 12. She said it felt so different from how some of our games have felt in the past. And I agree.”
The different feel of this season’s Cyclones is materializing not only into wins but into Big 12 and national recognition as well. The team earned its first-ever appearance in the USA Today / NFCA DI Coaches’ Poll this week at No. 25, and Williams was named the Big 12 Player of the Week for the third time in her career.
In addition to what Williams described as “a full, well-rounded lineup and team,” she thinks the team’s red-hot start might have something to do with just feeling “antsy” after COVID-19 canceled most of the 2020 season and made for a strange offseason.
Williams’ summer workouts consisted of running, hitting balls off of tees into a net and doing what she could in her living room.
“This summer I ran a lot outside because that felt like the safest way to work out, and then I’d do workouts in my living room and try to blast the little speaker I have to try to get in the zone. It was hard because I was doing an internship this summer, so I’d be sitting in the living room doing work, and then when I finished work I’d have to transition into that mindset of working out in that same environment. That was kind of hard. I had to do whatever I could to change it up a little.”
Although Iowa State was able to resume team activities in the fall, it wasn’t back to business as usual. Practices involved sanitizing stations and wiping down softballs between exchanges, and the team wasn’t able to socialize.
“It was different not being able to have those team bonding moments where we’re hanging out with each other and getting to know the freshmen,” Williams said. “We have a huge freshman class this year, and as a fifth-year (senior), you kind of start to notice that age difference, especially when you don’t get to really hang out with them and get to know them.”
And then there was the monotony.
“We’ve been doing intrasquad scrimmages all fall and spring, and everyone is antsy to face new competition,” Williams said. “I think everyone was just really ready to get back out there and play. And I think that’s what’s been different about it—we haven’t played in so long that it just means a little more. Everyone wants it a little more because we’ve just gone without playing other competition since last March.”
Williams was a senior last March when the remainder of the season was canceled, but it didn’t take her long to decide she wanted to return for her extra year of eligibility. She made the announcement in April.
“I’m definitely glad I came back,” Williams said. “The fall was challenging, and five years of college athletics is a lot, but I’m really glad I’ve come back. I wasn’t ready to hang it up last spring when the season got canceled.”
She has since graduated with a degree in software engineering and is currently on track to complete her master’s degree in information systems this spring. She also accepted a job with Boeing that will start after her softball career is over.
But for now, Williams is just enjoying being part of a different Iowa State softball team.
As she put it, “It’s just nice being back on the dirt.”
The Cyclones head to Arizona this weekend for the GCU Purple Classic with the goal of continuing to build on their historic start. Iowa State plays Portland State on Friday at noon, and the weekend also includes a matchup against No. 13 Arizona State on Saturday.