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Interview with Head Coach Ashley Wade and infielder Mary Sobataka

Coach Wade high-fives and greets several players. (UNCW Athletic Department)

Entering the 2024 season, The Seahawk wanted to check in with second-year head coach Ashley Wade and veteran infielder Mary Sobataka. UNCW’s softball team hosts a pre-season tournament starting on Feb. 8.

Ryan Wiener: You’ve coached at several different schools, including programs like Coppin State, Stevenson, and Northern Illinois… How does that experience help you while coaching at UNCW? 

Coach Wade: It helps me a lot, I have had over 15 years of experience coaching collegiately prior to coming to UNCW. Everywhere you go you learn a lot of different things. At this point, it’s just taking all the things that I have learned at all the different stops and trying to put them together in a way that works best for this team. 

Wiener: This is your second season coaching the Seahawks, taking over for former Head Coach Kristy Norton. This would be tough for some, but last year you were able to win 23 games, including an impressive 17-7 conference record. How do you feel about your first year now that it is over? 

Wade: Looking back on it all, we accomplished many different things. We had many great highs, especially in conference, and I think within the first year it was just trying to get to know each other. All the players on the roster did not know me, and I did not know them prior to the season…So, I think a lot of it was just us getting used to each other and getting comfortable with one another. I think once that happened, things started to get rolling on the field as well. That coincided with our conference season, which was great. Looking back on it all, we did have a successful season and learned a lot from each other within that year but hoping for a different result this year in the conference tournament than last year. Looking back on the season overall, there are lots of great things to celebrate and a lot of firsts for the program and I’m just looking to continue to build upon that in the future. 

Wiener: For our schedule this year, UNCW plays a variety of schools at different program levels and different conferences. How do you feel that strength of schedule can help the team come conference tournament time? 

Wade: I think it helps a lot. Coaches can have different styles of planning the preseason schedule. With no disrespect to other people, some people go with a lighter schedule and play a little bit easier opponents, and some people play more challenging opponents. I would rather be in the latter part of that, where we’re challenging ourselves early on. I don’t want the preseason to be too easy where we kind of steamroll everybody and then the first time we face a challenge is during conference play. Our conference schedule is competitive, and we must show up and play our best game every day against our conference opponents. So, to be able to have those opportunities to do that early on and learn some things from it. We’re not going to be perfect in every game, and so we’re just trying to learn from those things that happen in the game. Pushing ourselves as much as we can in the preseason, I think is going to help us. We have a few really tough opponents, and we have some schools coming here that have notoriously had great pitching staffs… UMBC is always at the top of the charts for pitching staff. That’s going to put our hitters to the test, which is a great thing for us. I’m confident in our hitters to succeed against that, but it’s going to put us in a good situation to be prepared more for conference games. 

Wiener: If you had one word to describe this team, what would it be? 

Wade: Connective, Fun.

Mary Sobataka: Family. 

Wiener: Are there any goals or expectations that you have for this upcoming season? 

Sobataka: Win the conference tournament. First, we have to make the tournament. Since we’re hosting this year, it’d be nice to win it at home. We came up short last year, and who knows what preseason rankings are going to look like… so it’s going to give us something to fight for. 

Wade: I think going into this year, for me, it’s just continuing to fight to be at the top of the conference. Yes, it would be nice to win a regular season, but I don’t think that’s what ultimately matters. That is not the end-all be-all goal. I think just putting ourselves in a good position to be at the top of the conference is important. It’s going to be a dogfight for those top spots. There’s no doubt in my mind that the top four spots are going to be competitive, and with Campbell coming into the conference, it just got even harder and more competitive, which is fun because when you are competing against other conference opponents you don’t want it to be easy because it is not as rewarding in my opinion. So, there are some good programs at this conference. Just to be at the top of it is the expectation, somewhere within the top three. Then, once we get to the tournament, with it being on our field, there is an added level of comfortability. I think that will benefit us moving forward; however, I think to first focus on the conference tournament, we’ve lost sight of 52 games before that; so, that’s not where my focus is. We’ll focus on that when we get there. Win game one is the first goal. Let’s try not to overlook any opponents along the way, and if we just play our softball, the expectation is playing Seahawks softball from game one to game 52. If we do that, then we’re going to be in a great spot and all the other things are going to come along with it. 

Sobataka eagerly awaits the ground ball. (UNCW Athletics Department)

Wiener: Mary, you’re entering your fifth collegiate season, having played 135 career games. How do you think your experience can help your teammates this season? 

Sobataka: There’s always pressure when you play the game, but when you have whatever number you said under your belt, it makes things a little bit easier. We have 10 new faces on the team. For me, sharing experiences, and knowledge and being open with them about the hardships and the highs of the game helps me get better, but it also helps them learn the game too. That’s something I’ve been excited about; having people in my position, you know, pushing me, me pushing them… kind of back and forth. We have a good relationship defensively, and offensively. I think just sharing knowledge face-to-face helps a lot and that’s one thing that has not only made our hitting game strong but has also improved our defensive game too.  

Wiener: What does playing and coaching at UNCW mean to you? 

Sobataka: To me, it means everything.  

Wade: You’re gonna make her cry now!  

Sobataka: This place [UNCW] made me love the game of softball again. When I was in the transfer portal, I didn’t have the greatest stats that anybody would look up and be like, “Oh, we want that kid.” When I first came in here, I was playing for Coach Nort. I owe her everything for taking a chance on me. Now, I play for Coach Wade. Opening myself to her and being honest with her about everything, now going into our second season together, I think it has shown me that this program has grown in my time here. It is just awesome to be a part of. It’s something that I will forever hold on to and forever give my love to. Building the culture has been one of the most fun things to do. I will say that all the people on the winning championship team in the past two years have everything to do with that. As Coach said, you can preach and talk about culture all you want, but the people who are playing are the ones building it. When you’re playing the game that you love with people that you also love, I think it just makes it so much easier. 

Wade: I think if I had to put it into one word, it would be “rewarding.” Like Mary said, the people here and the team that we have are incredible and just having a chance to be a part of that is a privilege. I think coming into my first season last year and they had just previously won a championship, that is a privilege. To be able to walk into a team that I just inherited and that’s all thanks to Coach Norton, and her recruiting, and all the people that were involved on those coaching staffs to bring this group here. But I think that walking into that is a privilege and pressure with it. When you walk into a team that loses every game, that’s easy because you can just win 15 games and people think you’re great. You know what I mean? When you walk into a team that has a culture of winning and an expectation of that, there’s a pressure that goes along with that. I love every second of that and wouldn’t want it any other way. I hope to continue to build upon that and improve year after year, surpassing what we did the previous year. Our team is constantly getting better, we’re becoming a more nationally recognized program. That’s always the goal as well. Just to have the opportunity to be here in such a beautiful place, we love our field, we love [Bozeman]. Just to be able to show up every single day here in the city of Wilmington, there’s just no other place I would rather be than here with this group of people. It is an incredible opportunity that I am grateful to have and keep going in the right direction. 

Wiener: What superhero would you be if you had to choose one? 

Sobataka: Spider-Man.

Wade: Superman/ Sammy the Seahawk/ Mary Sobataka.  

 

The UNCW Softball team will look forward to their return to glory this upcoming season. With tough opponents such as UMBC, Duke, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and Minnesota, this UNCW Seahawks team will be welltested during the conference tournament. A pre-season tournament preseason tournament that is beginning on Feb. 8. The schedule for this tournament and the rest of the season can be found here.  

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