Texas Tech’s all-time winningest softball coach now turning around GCU’s program

Former Texas Tech softball coach Shanon Hays has help turned the Grand Canyon University softball program around with a strong recruiting effort. (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – In the field of collegiate athletics, few coaches have taken the circuitous route Shanon Hays has.

Grand Canyon is glad he did. The first-year softball coach took over a team that was 19-30 in 2021 and turned it in to a one that is 27-10, good for first place in the WAC West Division.

His journey to Phoenix started as an infielder at his alma mater, Texas Tech, playing for his father, Larry Hays, the Red Raiders’ baseball coach for 22 years.

“I grew up a coach’s kid,” Shanon said. “That’s what I always wanted to do.”

He began his head coaching career at Frank Phillips College in Texas, coaching the men’s basketball team before moving on to Abilene Christian, where he led the Wildcats to a 58-26 mark over three seasons.

After finding himself in roles such as assistant coach, athletic director, associate head coach and head coach, Hays made a surprising shift.

He took over as Lubbock Christian’s softball coach in 2006.

From 2010-14, he guided Texas Tech, leading the Red Raiders to a 186-96 mark.

At the end of both of their tenures, Larry (2008) and Shanon (2014) left Texas Tech as the winningest head coaches in school history for their respective sports.

After spending five seasons in Division II, Hays found himself taking the helm of the Lopes in June.

Pitching coach Maribeth Gorsuch joined the Lopes for her first collegiate coaching position after graduating from LSU in 2021. (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

“(Grand Canyon’s president and athletic director) wanted to do great things, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Hays said.

One thing to credit for this abrupt change up success? The transfer portal. During the offseason, GCU gained key additions to this year’s squad, such as junior catcher/infielder Kinsey Koeltzow, junior pitcher Ariel Thompson, graduate infielder Denae Chatman and sophomore infielder Katelyn Dunckel.

“I was actually recruited out of high school by coach Hays,” Dunckel said. “He recruited me at Oklahoma Christian. And then, over the summer, he called me, and he was like, ‘Hey, got a new job at GCU, want to come?’ And I was like, ‘for sure!’”

It didn’t take long for Hays to put together the winning formula at GCU. Hays largely attributes success in college athletics to recruiting. For the 2022 cycle, Hays brought in seven players, with only one player from Arizona.

“As a coach, you’re only as good as the players that you have on the field or on the floor,” he said. “I was very fortunate when I took this job that I knew a lot of these kids that were going on the portal and that were in great programs.”

“But of course, it starts with pitching,” Hays added. “If you can recruit really good pitching, you can have some success. That’s what we’ve tried to do so far.”

Hays believes recruiting is the key to putting the best product on the field. As much as he wants a higher number on the scoreboard than the other team and W’s in the win/loss column, he believes his duty as a softball coach is beyond that.

His players have caught onto that mindset as well.

“He always says, ‘It’s just softball,’” Dunckel said. “That gives us really good perspective when we’re playing. It’s not this intense pressure. It’s just fun to compete. He always says it’s fun to compete. But also, we have a life outside of softball.”

On the diamond, that love of competing is exactly what Hays instills in his players: compete first, and then let the rest take care of itself.

At practice, Hays can be seen giving simple orders to fix complex situations. While running a drill that practices getting runners out that are in a pickle, Hays’ coaching was clear and concise.

“I love coach Hays, I really do,” senior outfielder Gianna Nicoletti said. “He’s kept everything really simple. The game of softball can be really confusing, really complex a lot of times, and a lot of times people struggle when they don’t remember the simple things. He’s able to keep it simple.”

Keeping things simple is a large part of Hays’ coaching philosophy.

It is also relatively simple to upset him.

“I think it’d be body language,” Chatman said. “I think we know that you’re going to make physical mistakes. It’s the mental ones we don’t want to make. … He’s never gonna yell at you for trying your hardest and making a mistake. It’s like, when you have bad body language, and you’re feeling bad for yourself.

Graduate student Denae Chatman transferred from Arizona State to Grand Canyon for her last year of eligibility. (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

The Lopes’ morale is up as winners of eight out of their last nine heading into Friday’s road matchup against Seattle University.

GCU has just four series left before the WAC Tournament begins in Huntsville, Texas.

“If we show toughness as a team and confidence for the rest of the year, we can do a lot of things,” Hays said. “We can find ourselves in the postseason, and that’s kind of step one for our program is finding a way into a regional and then seeing what we can do from there.”

Brandon Bonaparte Bran-don Bone-a-part
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brandon Bonaparte plans to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism, a minor in digital audiences and a certificate in marketing. Bonaparte, who has interned at Goodman Networks, Sports360AZ and Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

Susan Wong soo-zin wah-ong (she/her/hers)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Susan Wong expects to graduate in May 2023 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Wong, who earned a bachelor’s in sports journalism in May 2022, is a digital media intern with Sun Devil Athletics.