HANCEVILLE — Being the defending national champions isn’t easy. There is a little added pressure that goes along with that title.

Don’t believe it? Just ask anyone on the Wallace State softball team.

The Lions deal with pressure every day.

One year after winning the program’s first NJCAA national title, Wallace finds itself with high expectations and a huge target on its back.

And thus far, Wallace has been able to overcome it.

But it’s not always easy — especially for the sophomores that helped the Lions win it all last spring.

“The pressure is there. We can feel it,” sophomore outfielder Sally Van Kirk said. “With us being sophomores, it’s a lot of pressure for us to repeat. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Van Kirk isn’t the only sophomore feeling the crunch. It’s the general feeling among the group.

“Being a sophomore this year, yeah, there’s a lot of pressure,” sophomore second baseman Sallie Beth Burch said. “I don’t necessarily feel like we have to carry the team, but I do feel like a lot is expected out of us… Like it’s our job to make sure we get back to where we were last year.”

Dealing with high expectations isn’t the only pressure Wallace has felt this season. The Lions have also noticed a larger-than-usual target on their back.

Almost every time Wallace takes the field, the Lions are facing their opponent’s No. 1 pitcher. Opposing teams also seem to play with a little more intensity when the defending national champions are sitting in the other dugout.

The players have noticed this trend. But according to Van Kirk, that’s not a bad thing.

“Everyone throws their No. 1 against us. Everyone plays their best against us,” Van Kirk said. “But if you think about it, that should help us in the long run.”

It’s helping in the present, too.

Almost 30 games into the season, Wallace has only lost four times. The Lions have done this despite losing both starting pitchers and two first-team All-Americans.

How have the Lions done it?

“We’ve had some players really step up,” Van Kirk said. “Especially our pitchers. They’ve done an outstanding job.”

Does that mean the Lions are content with how they’ve played?

Absolutely not.

“You can never be satisfied,” Burch said. “Once we get satisfied, that’s when we’ll get beat.”

That’s the type of attitude Clem has instilled into her players — why the players believe they finished last season as national champions… Why they expect to do the same this spring.

Hard work, lengthy practices and intense workouts are something the Lions embrace — even if it means a little less personal time for the players. Don’t look for that to change any time soon.

According to Burch, it takes that type of commitment to compete at the national level, which is exactly where Wallace wants to be.

“I didn’t realize just how lazy I am until I got here,” Burch said. “Coach (Jayne) Clem pushes us hard. She pushes us on the practice field, and she pushes us in the classroom. It’s completely different from playing in high school. This is more like a job.

“But it’s also worth it. For us to reach the expectations we’ve set for ourselves, this is what has to be done. You have to work hard to get there — to build the team back up to that level.”

‰ Justin Graves can be reached by phone at 734-2131, ext. 257 or by e-mail at jgraves@cullmantimes.com.

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