Marla Townsend grew up in the city, but she’s really a country girl at heart.
Her 42 acres and four horses in Morris are a long way from the busy streets of her childhood home of Pinson, where she went to high school, and Pelham, where she coached the high-school softball team after receiving her master’s from UAB.
And when Gene Bartow called her July 28, 1998, asking her to come down to the university to talk with him about starting a softball program, her life was about to be better than she even imagined.
“When Gene Bartow calls you, you’re like ‘Wow,’” says Townsend. “He took me under his wing and made me feel like family.”
Townsend has made sure to follow through in the promise Bartow saw in her back then, steadily building her softball program into a Conference USA contender while still calling the country home.
That was no more evident than this year, when the Blazers posted a 31-22 overall record, including a best ever 15-9 mark in C-USA, and had a shot at a regular season championship right up until the last game of the season.
Townsend was rewarded for the success, claiming her second C-USA Coach of the Year honor in her tenure.
“I call it the coaching staff of the year award,” she says, giving recognition to assistants Jennifer Collins and Kim Unkenholz and the support staff of Chris Deal, Stephanie Nitsch, Lucy Bass and Khyl Farrison.
“There have been ups and downs over the seven years, but to get where we are and to do so with the quality of young ladies we’ve had, it’s awesome.”
Success no surprise
The first day Townsend walked into her office at UAB in the fall of 1998, she was hit with just how new the program was.
Not only did she not have any collegiate coaching experience or recruiting experience, she didn’t have any furniture.
“I had to get a little table and a chair so I could get in there and start making phone calls and begin recruiting,” she says. “So, when you say you’re building from scratch, we were.”
Deal, UAB softball sports information director, wasn’t around Townsend in those days.
But he’s been at her side for the past year, watching her continue to build the program. Her success this year is no surprise, he says.
“She’s just relentless,” Deal says. “She’s one of those coaches that never takes a day off whether the team is playing or not. This program is hers, and she loves it and pours her heart and soul into it.
“If there’s anyone that wants to see UAB do well in softball or anything else, it’s Marla. She loves this place.”
Interim Athletics Director Richard Margison agrees, saying Townsend’s passion for her game – and her students – is evident in everything she does.
“Marla understands the importance of working with student-athletes on all aspects of their college career, not just their hits-and-runs potential,” notes Margison. “She is well-deserving of the C-USA Coach of the Year honor, and we’re all very proud of and for her.”
How do you build a program from scratch? Better yet, how do you sell it to recruits?
Townsend says that part of her job has been easier than one might expect.
The quality of UAB as an institution, along with the camaraderie among its athletics programs, both go a long way toward convincing prospective student athletes that being a Blazer is the right choice for them.
“When you get a student athlete on campus for an official visit and they see the oneness of the athletic department and what UAB has to offer them that will help them for the rest of their lives, it sells itself,” she says.
When Townsend refers to the quality of the “young ladies” in her program, she’s not just discussing their athletic ability.
She has recruited a large number of her players from the Central Alabama area, but also has signed student athletes from as far away as Canada, Washington and Oregon.
All of them have taken an active role in the local community, from cooking meals at the Ronald McDonald House several times a year to reading to area youth at schools.
“I’m very proud of that,” Townsend says. “They’re so involved, and they’re taking ownership in the Birmingham area.”
They are producing on the field, as well.
Six players were selected to All-CUSA teams after the season. Holly Krzan and Lindsay Stanley were selected to the first team, Kayla Harris and Jennifer Nelson took second-team honors, and Harris joined Andrea Rogers on the All-Freshman Team. All of those players will return next year; the Blazers lose just one senior.
“That’s the exciting part, we’ve got so many ladies returning,” Townsend says. Being able to coach those student athletes at her alma mater also has its benefits, she says.
“To be coaching a Division I program the quality of UAB in my hometown, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Unless you count the drive back home to the horses in their field every night.