In her first season as head coach of Polk State softball, Donna Byars took over an inexperienced team with just one sophomore. The 2018 squad struggled to win games, finishing the season with a 4-38 record.
This year, despite injuries to several players, Byars led an improved team to a record of 20-28.
In the following conversation, Byars shares her thoughts on the breakout season.
In 2018, you had a young team with just one sophomore, and you won only four games. This year, with a lineup that included five sophomores, you went from four wins to 20. That's an amazing accomplishment. How did you have such a successful second season?
I think I got pretty lucky with a couple of incoming freshmen recruits who wanted to stay local. Also my five returning sophomores helped push us to be more successful than our first year.
After your first season, did you target any specific players or type of player when you were recruiting for 2019?
I definitely went looking for some pitchers and any players who could hit.
Who were some of your key players this season?
They were all key players -- especially when you finish with 13 players on your roster as we did due to injuries.
What was the team's greatest strength this season and where does it need to improve next year?
Our hitting, I believe, was our overall greatest strength. We need to get more of the "1-9" hitting and continue strengthening our pitching staff
Last year was your first season as a college coach. What did you learn that helped you have more success this season?
You must have pitching depth and hitting. I also have to prepare the players for the kind of competition we face and our game schedule. It gets tough playing 42-plus innings in a week and trying to maintain school work as well.
You're losing five sophomores. Have you started recruiting for 2020 and, if so, how is that going?
I have started recruiting my 2020 class, and I have a few more spots to fill. I currently have a hole at shortstop. It's going to be hard to find a replacement for sophomore Victoria Perry.
Polk State plays in a tough conference. Each of the six Suncoast Conference teams won at least 20 games this season. How hard is it win conference games, and what do you need to do to finish first or second and qualify for the state tournament?
Like you said, our conference is very tough. You can't just show up and expect to win. We made a lot of mental errors this year due to a lack of focus and just exhaustion when it comes down to the end of the conference schedule.
I am going to have to prepare them even more, and we will need to continue to grow defensively and offensively. I have a pitching coach who will be joining our coaching staff next year ,so that should keep our pitchers healthy and more consistent.
Byars came to the Eagles from Bartow High School, where she served as head softball coach. In her first two seasons, she led Bartow to a final four appearance in 2015 and a state championship in 2016. She was named FACA Coach of the Year and The Lakeland Ledger Coach of the Year.
A Bartow High School graduate, she played on the Lady Jackets softball team that won the school's first state championship in 1997.
Byars attended Daytona State College on a softball scholarship and then transferred to the University of North Florida to play softball for two years. She earned All Region and All Conference team honors at UNF in 2003 and graduated from with a degree in health science and a minor in education.