By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – Cadi Oliver knew this day would come. But at just 24 years old?
Never in her wildest dreams.
The Alabama native was named Northwest Florida State softball's interim head coach last month just five months after being brought in to be assistant coach.
"I'm from Alabama so this type of thing happens there, but not in as competitive a conference as the Panhandle or in Juco softball around these parts," Oliver said. "To be put into this spot, it was just too good to pass up."
Oliver, now 25, replaces Jack Byerley, who led the Raiders to 378 wins, 10 FCSAA tournament appearances and three Panhandle Conference championships after arriving to Niceville in 2008.
Yet Byerley and the Raiders struggled to a 31-24-1 overall mark and 9-11 record in the Panhandle last season after a record-setting 2017 season in which they went 46-15.
By December Byerley resigned.
"Northwest Florida State College is thankful for the contributions coach Byerley made to our softball program and wish him well in his future endeavors," read a statement issued by the NWF State athletic department.
The news came as a shock to Oliver, whose coaching résumé includes a year as a graduate assistant at Jacksonville State University and a season as an assistant coach with Bevil State Community College.
"It's a hard thing for the program this late in the season, but the thing is we have to pull together as a whole and move forward," Oliver said.
The struggles for NWF State last season were many — an offense that hit just .297 collectively for 5.8 runs per game and a pitching staff that struggled to the tune of a 4.48 collective ERA and 1.53 WHIP.
Talent- and approach-wise, Oliver sees a team that can improve vastly.
"My biggest thing as coach, whether it's as an assistant or head coach, is you have to build relationships," Oliver said. "Your players have to develop that trust in you. You want them to run through a brick wall for you if you told them how to do it and why. You want them to believe in you."
It's that attitude that endeared Oliver to NWF State athletic director Ramsey Ross and the athletic program.
"Our college looks forward to the leadership of coach Oliver this spring," the program said in a statement. "We have a great group of young ladies who are excited about the prospects of the 2019 season."
Oliver's tutelage also depends heavily on the leadership of assistant coach Alyssa Clayton.
"She's done a wonderful job with the pitchers — like she has a calendar with all of their test dates," Oliver said. "We've told the girls, while the pitching may not be quite there, the hitters have to pick them up. And vice versa. We're not focused on just one aspect."
In Oliver, the NWF State players can draw from an athlete who was in their shoes recently.
Oliver, not much older than her players, was a lauded shortstop at Jacksonville State. There she helped the Gamecocks to four Ohio Valley conference titles in five years and four appearances in the NCAA Region tournament before graduating in 2016. She also led her high school, Sumiton Christian, to a state title in 2010 while being named AHSAA State Tournament MVP.
Oliver's hoping that success translates to NWF State, which opens the season Friday with a doubleheader against Galveston and reigning national champion Temple in the Galveston College Invitational in Texas.
"We'll be tested early," Oliver said. "We'll see where we're at."
As for Panhandle Conference title aspirations?
"I think we have the talent to compete," Oliver said. "I haven't seen the other teams play, but I think if we work on playing together and they genuinely enjoy being here, I think the success will follow."