Nestled in the northern part of the state of South Carolina is the city of Spartanburg, where one man has resided for the past 30 years as he built an Top-25 NCAA Division I Softball program from the ground up.
Chris “Hawk” Hawkins came to Spartanburg in 1986 as a member of USC Upstate’s first-ever varsity Baseball team. Accumulating a 30-9 record during his collegiate career, Hawkins was drafted by both the Atlanta Braves (1985) and the Houston Astros (1987) and spent two years playing minor league ball in New York with the Auburn Astros.
After ending his minor league baseball career, Hawkins returned to Spartanburg and finished his degree in Physical Education from USC Upstate in 1989. With his college degree in hand, Hawkins stepped away from sports momentarily and worked a normal job looking to support himself and his family. But the draw of teaching young kids remained as he coached summer travel ball teams during his free time.
Hawkins always kept his eyes open for a collegiate opportunity, which would come at his alma mater.
“USC Upstate had an opening as an assistant coach for the Softball team under Mark Cooke.” Hawkins recalled, “I was intrigued and that’s what I had majored in at Upstate so it was a good opportunity to start my career.”
Cooke and Hawkins launched a winning program from the start as the Spartans finished in the top-three of their NAIA District in the early stages of the program. Following Cooke’s departure, Hawkins became the Head Coach in 1995 and has been at the helm of the program ever since accumulating 900 victories over the past 23 seasons.
Building a successful program from the ground up is difficult and Coach Hawkins, his staff and his players understand that it takes a village, or even a university full of people to support the program and the student-athletes that have come through Spartanburg.
Lexi Shubert, a two-time ASUN Softball Scholar-Athlete of the Year, described the family atmosphere, “All of the support staff has always been very helpful in both academic and athletic areas.” Shubert said. “Eric English, our trainer, was instrumental in helping me on and off the field. My professors were also cooperative when we had to miss classes for road trips and helpful with catching up on missed work.”
That kind of familiarity and willingness to help is something Coach Hawkins has been able to build up over time. He believes it is a key part of the team’s success today.
“Over this time frame, I’ve been able to build a lot of good relationships with people on campus, so it makes it really easy for our program to thrive as far as getting everything we need from the school to be successful.”
The successes and growth of the program have been evident from the moment Coach Hawkins took over. USC Upstate became one of the premier Division II Softball programs as the Spartans made several D-II NCAA Tournament appearances, including four consecutive in the final four seasons before moving up to the Division I level.
Through his motivation skills and strong foundation, the transition to Division I for his softball program proved to be an easy one. Upstate has posted a winning record in all 10 seasons as members of the ASUN including seven 40-win campaigns.
“We didn’t have many growing pains, because I got more scholarships, I got more money to hire a full-time assistant.” Hawkins said. “I felt like a kid in the candy shop, because we were already getting good players. We went 34-15 and won the Regular Season title in our first year in the ASUN. So we were able to really expand and grow the program after four Division II regional appearances. Fortunately, we had a strong pitcher by the name of Morgan Childers during that transition, and the only reason we got her was because of the move to Division I.”
The best programs in the country are able to sustain success year over year in large part to having continuity on the staff and in the playing style. Coach Hawkins understands the importance of having a good staff around him and letting them perform to the best of their abilities.
“Kenzie Roark is the pitching coach on our team, I have nothing to do with the pitching staff.” Hawkins explained. “That’s what I hired her for and I let her do her job. Coach Pack is a great recruiter and he works with our defense, that’s his specialty and I don’t interfere with that stuff. Hitting and running the offense is my part. If you get good people in your program, they will make you look good as a head coach. I would be nowhere without them.”
That tight knit bond of the coaching staff that Hawkins has assembled extends to the players. Playing at USC Upstate and under Hawkins means you become part of the Spartan Family. That family atmosphere has been integral in helping the softball team become successful on the Division I level.
Hawkins explained that family approach, “As a coaching staff we all have parts to play to make the whole collective successful. Our players understand that family philosophy. I believe that when kids are responsible it comes from respect. I want our kids to respect our staff and vice versa.” He added, “We go above and beyond for them off the field, in turn they give us every single ounce of what they can on the field. That’s the best way how I can describe our culture and the way we treat our players.”
Ryan Rector, who has been a key member of the team and the Spartan community over the past four years, echoed that sentiment. “At USC Upstate there’s no other option really for us than to be a family. That’s how a program and tradition works. We come to Spartanburg and feel instantly welcome because of the culture that coach has created amongst his coaching staff and the players and within each other.”
Rector added, “I know that at any given time of the day if I need something or if something happens that I could call Coach Hawkins, Coach Pack or Coach Kenzie and know that they would be there for me instantly. I think that’s the reason we all choose Upstate because they make us feel welcome and they make Spartanburg feel like home.”
Hawkins and his staff have figured out a formula that works for the Spartans and they continue to be successful and compete with some of the top programs in the country, despite having fewer resources than other softball powerhouses.
The Spartans made their fifth consecutive NCAA Regional appearance, having recently won a game for the fifth year in a row. Coach Hawkins believes that they are right there when it comes to making that next step, the Super Regional.
“On any given day, a good team can beat a good team. We are a good team, just like every team in the regionals. Anything can happen when you make it to that level. That’s what I love about the sport. This year, we were shutting out No. 7 Tennessee in the regional this year in the seventh inning. If we hold on, they would have had to beat us twice, so our team actually tasted what it was like, even though we didn’t win it, but they tasted what it is like to make it to that next level.”
With 900 wins and counting under his belt, Hawkins and his softball team is the most successful athletic program at the university. “I don’t mind being the front porch of our University.“ Hawkins said. “I think it’s pretty cool for our softball program.”