After longtime coach Donna J. Papa retired a few weeks back, North Carolina softball began a coaching search, and on Thursday they announced their choice. Former UNC player and Marshall head coach Megan Smith Lyon will be returning to Chapel Hill to head up the program as they look to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2024.
Smith Lyon played at UNC from 1996-99, and was an assistant coach for Papa in the 2004 season. After that, she was chosen as the first coach in the Western Carolina softball program history, and led them to a winning season in their inaugural year.
In 2010, Smith Lyon was named head coach at Kansas, and led the Jayhawks to NCAA Tournament appearances in 2014 and ‘15, which are their two most recent appearances. In 2019, she took over at Marshall. This part year was her most successful with the Thundering Herd, leading them to a 45-10 record. That included a 23-game win streak from February 26th to April 8th. Unfortunately, they just missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid as they fell to Louisiana — who went on to upset LSU and make NCAAT Super Regionals — in the Sun Belt Championship game. Over her career, Smith Lyon has a .634 winning percentage as a head coach.
This hiring represents a pretty big opportunity for both Smith Lyon and the Tar Heels. College softball has really grown in popularity and profile in recent years. Considering the wide range of sports that UNC is already good at, there’s no reason why couldn’t become a regular NCAA Tournament team. Under Papa, they went 15 times in a stretch from 2001 to 2019. However, they never quite took the next step in that time, never advancing to Super Regionals or the Women’s College World Series. The closes they came was in 2019, when they made the Regional final and took one game off host Tennessee, before the Volunteers beat them in the winner-take-all game to go to Super Regionals.
However on the other hand, they haven’t made it back to the NCAA Tournament since, then and have finished under .500 ever year, including the brief, ultimately COVID-shortened 2020 season. Obviously, they’re not going to challenge current dynasty Oklahoma overnight. That being said, UNC on paper should have the tools to become a really good program. It would be nice to see them represented at the WCWS field in Oklahoma City in the years to come.