The Windy City and the Chicago Bandits have certainly taken to Andi Williamson.
In the little more than a month since she’s been a member of the National Professional Fastpitch team the players and staff have gotten to know what we already know about her.
She’s the friendly, humble, attractive, down-to-earth, girl-next-door type who loves to pitch, loves to play softball, is a fierce competitor and hates to lose.
That’s a good combination when you are trying to put together a championship women’s softball team.
Williamson is a self-proclaimed “country girl” and has been kidded about her Appalachian twang by some of the staff members and teammates.
Andi just chuckles and shrugs it off all in good fun.
She’s been a hit in Chicago not just because of her personality.
She’s won over a lot of people with her pitching arm.
Williamson’s statistics are doing a lot of the talking – a talk in southern West Virginia dialect – but one that has been heard all across the four-team league.
Heading into this weekend’s games, Williamson has a 4-1 record and 1.53 ERA.
Not bad for a rookie.
Williamson, with an array of pinpoint location pitches and a fastball clocked at 71 miles per hour, started off 4-0 as a pro with the Bandits until last Saturday when she suffered her first loss in a 4-3 defeat to the USSSA Florida Pride in Kissimmee, Fla.
Still, even in defeat, Williamson pitched very well, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning before the Pride were able to push across four unearned runs.
With an 18-6 record and a 1-0 win over the Akron Racers on Thursday night, the Chicago Bandits currently sit in first place going into this weekend’s action. With a little more than a month to go in the regular season, the Bandits are likely to see the Pride again when the league-ending championship series is played in late August.
That’s the goal for the Bandits, of course, and to Andi.
Williamson has tasted championship glory in the past as you know quite well.
As a sophomore in 2007 she came to Chapmanville Regional High School after the closure of Harts High School and led Coach Ronnie Ooten’s team to the Class AA state championship.
The year before at Harts as a freshman, Williamson nearly led the Lady Lions to the Class A state title but Harts lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to powerhouse Wheeling Central in the championship game.
After a brief hiccup in 2008, Chapmanville was again state champs her senior season in 2009 as the Lady Tigers went 31-3 and Williamson was the West Virginia State Player of the Year as she sported a 0.09 ERA and 20-plus wins within the circle.
After a year with the Tennessee Volunteers, Williamson went to her father’s alma mater, Marshall University, and led the Herd to this year’s historic Conference USA championship and first-ever berth in the NCAA Softball Tournament.
At Marshall, Williamson was a record-breaking pitcher. She led Conference USA in number of wins in 2011 and set a Marshall record of 33 wins with 364 strikeouts during her senior year. She closed out her three-year career at Marshall with 731 strikeouts.
And now on to the pros.
Winning seems to follow Andi wherever she goes.
A professional championship with the Chicago Bandits seems to be there for the taking.
Williamson takes everything in stride, though, and said she’s just happy to help out the ballclub.
“It’s a great opportunity and a great experience,” she told The Logan Banner in an exclusive interview this week. “I love all of my teammates and I’m just happy to be here.”
Williamson said it was always a dream of hers to not only pitch collegiately but also in the pro league.
“That’s always been a dream of mine,” Williamson said. “It’s really exciting and I feel blessed to have this opportunity. Every batter is a challenge. Every batter is good. Every batter is a professional. You just have to take one pitch at a time.”
Earlier in the season, Williamson pitched Chicago to a road win over the Akron Racers in a game which was televised nationally on ESPN2.
“A lot of people back home watched and called and texted me to congratulate me,” she said. “It’s great to be from a small town. I’m hoping that I make everyone proud. This is just a great opportunity and a chance to represent all of the girls where I’m from and all of the small town girls. I’m so thankful that all of the people back home have taken the time to congratulate me. It’s great to hear from everybody back home.”
On the Bandits’ five-member pitching staff is softball legend Monica Abbott, a former United States Olympian, who last played for Team USA in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China. Williamson said it’s been great to be her understudy.
“It’s unbelievable and she’s just such a great person,” Williamson said of Abbott. “She has really helped me with my game. She’s a great person to be around. It’s unbelievable to think about just all that she’s accomplished.”
After the Beijing Games, the International Olympic Committee discontinued softball as an Olympic sport. Softball did not return to London in 2012 and will not in 2016 when the Games head to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The IOC, however, votes in September whether to reinstate softball to Olympic status for the 2020 Games, which are to be held in either Istanbul, Madrid or Tokyo.
Both baseball and softball are hoping to make a return to the Olympics in a joint bid. Baseball was also given the axe by the IOC.
Williamson said the National Professional Fastpitch league hopes to help bring back the sport to the Summer Games.
The United States has been most dominant on the world stage, winning softball gold in Atlanta in 1996 and then in Sydney in 2000 and again in Athens in 2004.
In the meantime, the World Cup of Softball has been held in recent years. Japan beat the United States for the Gold Medal just last week. The Japanese also took the Gold in ’08 at Beijing and seem to be a rising world powerhouse.
The NPF and women’s pro softball has its roots dating back to the 1980s and 1990s but the league is looking for more exposure.
The televised games on ESPN help and such former stars as Jennie Finch, a former Chicago Bandit in her own right, have also added to the sport’s clout.
Getting softball back in the Olympics is the next step.
“Of course, everyone wants to see softball back in the Olympics,” Williamson said. “We’re also trying to push the pro league, too, because there are still not a whole lot of people that know about it. We want to push and support softball as far as we can. It’s getting bigger and better and we want girls to realize that there is pro softball and if you are playing in college you have a chance to make it at the next level.”
Williamson is proof of that.
Andi knows, however, there is still a lot of softball to be played in the 2013 season before the summer is done.
The Bandits hope to reach the championship series at season’s end. The team, which has been existence since 2005, have won two league championships – one in 2008 and the other in 2011.
A title would make it full circle for Williamson, who also has the two high school state championships and the conference crown at Marshall.
“We absolutely have the team to do it,” she said. “Our team has players who work hard and are dedicated. This is such a good team to be on because everyone pushes each other to compete at the highest level. If you are not competing at your best level it is unsatisfactory here.”
Williamson said her most memorable moment so far as a Bandit was her very first game as a pro when she pitched her team to a win.
“The first game when I got to pitch was really exciting,” Williamson said. “Just to be out there was exciting. Everyone was so encouraging. Everyone was positive. It’s just a blast with this team. We also hang out off the field. When we played in New York we went into the city and got to see Times Square. We’re always doing something and my teammates are fun to be around.”
Williamson, of course, comes from an athletic family.
Her dad, Andy Paul, was a Harts High School basketball standout and played college ball at Marshall from 1987-90 and still ranks 12th all-time in career assists with 299.
Her mother Beth also played softball.
Andi’s brother, Paul Herbert, was an all-state basketball star at Logan High School and helped lead Coach Mark Hatcher’s Logan Wildcats to the Class AAA state championship in 2010 before going to West Virginia and playing one season for Coach Bob Huggins and the WVU Mountaineers.
She also has another younger brother, Drew, who played last season with the Harts Middle School basketball team, and also a younger sister, Ali.
When Andi came over to Chapmanville Regional High School her sophomore season, she not only helped lead the Lady Tigers to the Class AA state softball championship, she also played for the girls’ basketball team and was a cheerleader for one year.
Her senior year she was also voted by her peers as Miss Chapmanville Regional High School, the CRHS Homecoming Queen.
Williamson has seemed to have done it all.
But there’s one thing she admits that she misses.
Since she went off to college, she was not allowed to bat at Tennessee or Marshall.
The last time Andi stepped to the plate in an official game was way back in May 2009 when Chapmanville blanked Independence 2-0 in the state title game in Vienna.
In her high school days, Williamson carried a big stick and could hit with the best of them.
¬It was not uncommon for her to get ahold of a fastball and bang it all the way to the fence.
“I do miss it. I miss it a lot,” Williamson said with a laugh. “I didn’t get a chance to bat at Marshall because they were afraid of me getting hurt. They just wanted me to pitch.”
Just to see if she could still do it, Williamson said she picked up a bat just a few days ago at practice.
“I got a bat and took a few swings and did pretty good,” she said.
Williamson was signed by the Bandits as a free agent after wrapping up her career at Marshall. She closed out her collegiate career in grand fashion as she helped lead the Herd to the Conference USA crown and first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Marshall competed well in the NCAA Regionals, held in Lexington, Ky.
After a heartbreaking 2-1 loss in eight innings to SEC team and host Kentucky in the May 17 opener, Williamson then pitched the Herd to a 3-1 victory over Notre Dame before Marshall finished its season 36-22 after bowing to Virginia Tech, 3-2, in a 13-inning marathon.
Williamson went all seven innings against Notre Dame, allowing no earned runs and six hits while striking out six Irish batters and walking only one.
Against Kentucky, she also went the full seven and fanned five.
In the loss to Virginia Tech, Williamson pitched 12.2 innings with nine strikeouts and three walks. The Hokies won the game in the bottom of the 13th with an RBI single off Williamson, who finished the season with a 33-18 record.
“I couldn’t have done this without my three coaches, who have helped me develop as a person and player,” Williamson said of her Marshall career. “I am thankful for the support from the Marshall community and I am proud to say that I will always be a part of the Thundering Herd. The NCAAs were a great experience. It didn’t come out in our favor but we put Marshall softball on the map. Hopefully, people could see that Marshall was taking it to the next level and that will help the program in the future.”
Back home in southern West Virginia, Logan and Lincoln counties and neighboring Boone, have always been a girls’ softball hotbed.
With the efforts the late Bea Orr getting Miss Softball America off the ground in the 1970s, Logan, Chapmanville, Harts, Man and the surrounding areas have always produced some very good players.
Williamson said she hopes softball stays popular in the area and girls continue to have fun playing the sport.
“The advice I would give would be this … never stop believing,” Williamson said. “Anything is possible if you put your mind to it if you are determined and if you work hard. Never let anyone else tell you otherwise.”
When the pro softball season is over Williamson said she plans on returning home to Marshall to finish up her teaching degree. Then next summer, a second season with the Chicago Bandits would seem to definitely be in the cards.
“I’m going to be going back to finish school,” she said. “I’m going to be a teacher. I would like to teach and then play in the summer. It should work out well.”
Williamson said she has had time to take in some of the sights while she’s been with the Bandits.
Earlier in the summer when the Bandits played at New York against the New York/New Jersey Comets, the team went downtown and visited Times Square.
The Bandits play their home games in suburban Rosemont, Ill., in a ballpark built exclusively for the team, but that hasn’t stopped the squad from enjoying what Chicago has to offer, too.
However, in her stay so far in the Windy City, Williamson said she has not yet tried the world famous Chicago style deep dish pizza but plans to do so before she comes back.
Speaking of pizza, Williamson said one of the things she misses most about southern West Virginia is the taste of home.
“I miss Giovanni’s. I wish someone could send me a pizza from Giovanni’s,” Williamson quipped.