Touching base with women’s softball

Thomas Holguin/HIGHLANDER
Thomas Holguin/HIGHLANDER

UCR Head Softball Coach Nikki Palmer was hired just this December to head the program, and the outlook for the team is the best it has been in decades. Palmer is a former catcher for UC San Diego, starting 146 of the 158 games she played. At her previous job as the head softball coach at Utah Valley State, Palmer guided the school to a plethora of benchmarks — including school records in walks drawn, base stealing percentage and double plays — capped off by the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid in her first season at the school in 2014.

Maddie Richard is a senior from Vista, CA who was named to the NFCA All-Region Second Team and Big West First Team last season after winning the conference batting title with a program record 0.452 batting average that was ranked 13th nationally. She also ranked 19th in the country in stolen bases with a league-leading 38 swipes. She enters this season as an honorable mention on Fastpitch News’ Pre-Season NCAA Division I All-American and was listed 20th on Fastpitch News’ Top 50 NCAA Softball Hitters list.

Highlander: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into working with the game of softball?

Palmer: I started playing when I was eight, I don’t know about (Richard), but that’s late in the game for youngin’s (sic), and I guess I just loved it right away, and never wanted to grow up and let it go, so I got into coaching.

Richard: Pretty much the same, I actually also started playing when I was eight. I was a leader and my dad signed me up for a rec league, and I have just been playing ever since, and I also don’t want to grow up and finish.

Palmer: We may try to get Maddie into coaching. (laughs)

Coach, how do you think being a former catcher has helped your coaching?

Palmer: I think that in being a catcher, you operate the defense. You tell your teammates where they need to go before they need to know it, that kind of thing. Maddie’s an outfielder, so I am always teaching my catchers when Maddie at the point of receiving the ball just before she gets it, they should be yelling where to go so there’s no doubt in her mind when she’s received it, she should be focused on catching the ball and getting your footwork in the right position to throw the ball. I think having to know the strategy of the game as a catcher, where everybody goes and having really good overall softball IQ allowed me to be able to help different facets of our game and in my coaching life so I mean you can always get better at it and I’ve had to lean on a lot of different mentors and do some more studying on my own, but I definitely think it has helped quite a bit.

Maddie, I know it’s weird transitioning into a new staff, but how exciting is it to have coaches that are experienced in so many areas?

Richard: I mean I am honestly really excited for the season to start and yeah we have different coaching, and different coaches coming from completely different areas, like coach Palmer is a catcher, she came from a UC so she understands both the athletic and academic side, and Coach (Terry) Schweikert has lots of experience and she’s come from a bigger school and so has Coach (Cheridan) Hawkins and I think she’s doing a lot with our pitchers so I think all the different aspects that we get from each coach is going to help a lot.

Coach, you also worked at Utah State University in 2011 as an assistant who specialized in recruiting. How do you think that will come into play when approaching recruiting here in Riverside?

Palmer: I think everywhere I’ve been I have had a strong hand in recruiting and it’s something that comes very natural to me, but it does take a lot of skill and development to get an eye for things like that. I’m blessed to have Coach Schweikert by my side for that. We’ve done a couple of tests, if you will, with a couple of kids that we’ve liked and I’ll send her out to see them. We’ve been on the same page every time so it’s really nice to know that from the start, from the foundation of the recruiting process we’re working together and we have the same expectations which is really nice. We’re competing against UCLA and Long Beach and Fullerton for these recruits and I think that one of our big sells is the coaching staff and the academic experience. Once our girls continue to do what their doing and keep getting better and better and they are, making a name for themselves on their own and so all of those components will just help to make us a stronger candidate in the recruiting process. But I think as far as the eye goes between Coach Schweikert and even Coach Hawkins and I, I think the eye is there. We’ve lost some recruits to some top SEC schools already but the fact that we’ve been right there means that we’re doing the right things.

Thomas Holguin/HIGHLANDER
Thomas Holguin/HIGHLANDER

One of your first coaching jobs at Weber State, you were praised for your “individualized hitting drills” and being responsible for the development of Lyndsey Minnich, who won 2012’s PCSC Mountain Division Player of the Year Award. Any ideas on how this approach will work here at UCR?

Palmer: Like Maddie kind of already talked about, I am surrounded by people that are better than me, and I really, truly believe that. When I got this job, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh I’m going to bring my friends in here.’ I didn’t know Terry or Cheridan coming in here but I wanted the best people, people who are better than me at teaching the craft and that’s how we are gonna (sic) win, because if I am getting people that I am having to mentor all the time and teach and blah blah blah, that’s not going to make the players better. I think I am a great hitting coach, but I know that Terry is better than me as a hitting coach and so she’s our hitting coach and if she ever needs me to jump in on something we do that and we have had situations where with certain players we’ve worked with together. My hitting philosophy is a very individual approach for every player but Coach Schweikert is phenomenal. She’s worked with the national team. She’s worked with some of the best hitters in our game both slapping and power, so for me to impede her process would be a disservice to the program, so I just sit back and kind of watch her go, she’s awesome.

Hearing that from your coach must make it seem nice to play under. How has it been buying into this new staff?

Richard: It’s been pretty easy to buy into this coaching staff. Obviously it’s a difficult transition for everyone, with coaches meeting new players. I mean they had their own team at whatever school they were at and we have new coaches coming in, but I feel like our team has done a good job of buying into the coaching staff and fully believing and giving 100 percent effort into whatever they say and like (Coach Palmer) was saying with Coach Schweikert hitting: She’s not here to change us, she never came here to change any of our swings, just to make us better and to improve each person’s individual swing, and I think Coach Hawkins is doing that with our pitchers and Coach Palmer’s doing that mostly working with the outfielders. We’re all growing a lot as players and I think it shows in practices how we are developing our skills now compared to back in fall.

What are your goals for the season?

Palmer: We want to finish in the top third in conference. Yes, we want to win a World Series, yes, we want to go to Regionals, those are the ultimate goals. But we like to be realistic with our goals as well, we think that a successful season would be top third in conference. Do I think we have the capability to win conference? Yes I do. I think if we do things the right way and get the most out of our personnel then yeah, but I think if we finish top third in conference, as a head coach, I’d feel that it was a successful first season. I think Maddie as a senior would not be satisfied with third place, which is awesome. That’s what you want from your seniors. The program has not finished above fifth place in the last 20-something years and so, if they can get into that fourth place slot I think from the public eye that would be a successful season, after 20-something years it’s a pretty big deal.

Richard: Obviously you don’t want to settle for anything less than your team can get and I know we haven’t gotten above fifth place but when I transferred here my sophomore year, it solidified that we shouldn’t expect anything less than that. We’ve seen we can get a (0.500 winning percentage) in conference. We can get those wins, and we can compete easily with the teams we have in conference. I feel like every game we played last year (and didn’t win) maybe we lost by one run and they were all close games and there’s not a team in conference that we can’t beat as long as our team goes out there and competes and definitely gets top third in conference because we want to make it to postseason and we want to play in regionals, that would be a dream for (our graduating class). That all comes with (taking) it a game at a time; we have to work through preseason first and then move into conference.

You have had some experience against the Big West, beating Fullerton when they were 25th-ranked team in the country. Do you think that experience will be particularly helpful as you plan to face them more often?

Palmer: I have good experience against Big West schools from the past couple of years. We (Utah Valley State) faced Long Beach, we faced Fullerton; when I was at (Weber State) we faced Cal Poly and we faced Hawai’i in my last year, Santa Barbara three years ago, so I have a lot of experience with Big West schools, and knowing that Fullerton is number one in the preseason poll, and we shut them out that game and run-ruled them when they were ranked. I know how we did it and I know how we got there so that’s a little bit of a competitive advantage for our squad, it’s just a matter of executing what we need to do. You have to jump on them early.

Maddy, as a senior, aside from all of the goals and aspirations, what do you want to remember about this season?

Richard: I just wanna’ enjoy every moment, every practice, every game, every inning, every at-bat, every pitch that I get and just … I don’t know, I just want to remember this team. Ever since I’ve been here we’ve been a really close team, had very good chemistry, and I have had very good bonds with everyone on the team, and that’s something that I know that I’m going to remember. My teammates and the bonds that I’ve had with them, so that’s obviously something I would like to take with me and through my senior year. Just winning games and enjoying that.

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