NC State softball’s first-year coach wants Wolfpack to be perennial postseason contender

N.C. State softball began a new era this season with first-year head coach Lindsay Leftwich and her staff. The Wolfpack used the acronym WOLF — work, ownership, love and fight — to represent the characteristics it wants to possess.

Two words, however, stood out above the others.

“Love is one of our biggest ones. We call it the greatest form of aggression,” N.C. State right fielder Taylor Ensley said. “Our coaches love us way more than anything else…They care about the process. They care about who we are as people more than the outcome of a game.”

Shortstop MaKayla Marbury and third baseman Hannah Goodwin both said the transition to Leftwich’s staff has been smooth. It “pours so much love” into the players and the job is more than just a paycheck, Marbury said.

That love and care helped the team on the field, too. It took pressure off of the players and allowed them to play fearlessly, to play for more than a certain record or statistic.

“I feel like this year is different than any other because of that freedom, that joy that I feel with my coaches on the field, and that confidence I have because of their belief in me,” Ensley said.

The team is tasked, instead, with its second most-significant word: fight.

That’s not to say they haven’t set their goals high. They did. Goodwin transferred from Clemson last season and called Leftwich’s staff the best she’s played under.

Leftwich served as an assistant at LSU from 2011-2023 before taking over in Raleigh, helping lead the Tigers to four Women’s College World Series appearances and NCAA Tournament appearances every season, except when the tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her staff has experience with other tournament programs. N.C. State has never made it past Super Regionals.

Ensley said the Pack wants to become a WCWS-caliber program and teams don’t get to Oklahoma City without love or a fight-to-the-final-out mentality; two consistent traits among the nation’s best programs.

“I think just the way that (Leftwich) loves this game and provides for us in so many different ways turns it around for us,” Goodwin added on Saturday. “She makes us see a different perspective, how hard we work — and when little things add up, what can happen. I think it’s just amazing to see how much this team is turning around.”

Finishing the season at 30-23 overall and 6-18 in ACC play, N.C. State knows it’s not where it wants to be right now. It didn’t qualify for the conference tournament. But it’s still headed in a positive direction after last season’s turmoil.

In March 2023, N.C. State athletic director Boo Corrigan fired former head coach Jennifer Patrick-Swift 15 games into the season after the Wolfpack started 5-10, losing by nearly seven runs in that time frame. It opened the 2023 season with six straight losses.

Patrick-Swift went 109-81 overall and 34-54 in the league, while failing to advance to the postseason.

Fourteen months after Patrick-Swift’s departure, Leftwich wants to see continued grit, growth and confidence as part of the Wolfpack’s turnaround.

“I think that matters. I think you saw that early on defensively and some spots in the beginning of our season, we played really tentative and some spots weren’t super confident in their skills,” Leftwich said after the team’s 4-3 loss to ACC regular-season champion Duke on April 26. “They’re finally to a spot where they are out-believing people, and it’s starting to show up.”

The Wolfpack pushed two runs across home plate in the bottom of the seventh in its comeback attempt against the Blue Devils.

Duke head coach Marissa Young complimented Leftwich’s squad, which features 15 true freshmen and sophomores. Young called the Wolfpack “solid all around,” and noted the team’s ability to limit the Blue Devils through pitching and defense.

The local rival ultimately won the third game and picked up the sweep, but N.C. State managed to take a lead over Duke in a tough outing on April 28.

“I think they’re a really good team, and I don’t think their record is necessarily an indicator of what (Leftwich) has done,” Young said. “They just have a different life and energy about the program.”

N.C. State’s 2024 season included three wins over ranked teams, a victory over perennial Big Ten contender Northwestern, and a 13-game non-conference winning streak. It closed the 2024 schedule with a sweep over the Pitt Panthers, its lone ACC sweep of the season.

Fourteen of the team’s losses were by five runs or fewer. Ten were by three runs or fewer. Its average margin of defeat on the season was 5.2 runs. That drops to 2.2 runs in the five most recent losses.

Seven losses have been via run rule, though all of those came from other power programs such as ranked ACC opponents Florida State and Virginia Tech. There’s plenty of room to improve, but N.C. State isn’t worried.

“We have been playing the best in the ACC — which we should — and we’re competing with those teams,” Ensley said. “We’re not just playing those teams. That’s a lot bigger than just looking at wins and losses, because we actually compete every single time we go out there.”

It won’t make the WCWS this year. It might not even happen next year, but the Wolfpack believes it’s on the right track. It’s relying on love and a deep competitive spirit.

“It feels great that I’m one of the stepping stones for coach Lindsay and the staff to get to where I think we can be,” Ensley said. “I feel like we’re right there. I think we can do it. … It feels amazing — even if it doesn’t work out while I’m here — knowing that I helped build that culture for this team with my coaches, and we set a standard that the girls after us can follow.”