Howard Payne Lady Jackets shortstop Aurora Luera, a transfer from Frank Phillips College, stepped into a leadership role from day one with the program — which is looking to secure its first trip to the American Southwest Conference softball tournament since 2013.

Playing softball at Howard Payne, or anywhere else for that matter, appeared unlikely for Luera after her career at Frank Phillips ended.

“I honestly thought about not playing after my JUCO years because I didn't have a lot of success where I went,” Luera said. “It was a last minute thing. I came here and (HPU softball head) Coach (Jose) Mata made me feel like I needed to be here. It was going to be kind of like a rebuilding year and my leadership skills and talent were needed to help progress this team this year.”

One of 10 members of the roster who have played at another college, the experience of the Lady Jackets has played a key role in their 9-12 ASC record — good for eighth place in the conference standings — and 13-19 overall mark, four more wins than all of last season.

The top eight teams in the conference advance to the ASC championship tournament, which will be hosted by No. 2 East Texas Baptist, and the Lady Jackets lead McMurry — which visits for three games Thursday and Friday — by two games with six conference outings left.

“When you have something to work for everyday and girls on your team so excited, it makes us so much more motivated,” Luera said in regard to HPU being in the postseason hunt. “None of us have ever been in this tournament, or been close, now we're just being a couple games away. It's something I've always wanted to experience. Now that we have a chance to I'm really excited for it.”

Having started all 32 games thus far, Luera leads the Lady Jackets in hits (41), runs (25), triples (four), and stolen bases (six), and ranks second on the team in batting average (.373).

“Coming in as a transfer I had a little more experience than the freshmen and sophomores,” Luera said in regard to her first season as a Lady Jacket. “The position I play is a leadership position, you have to be vocal, you have to know the game. Me playing that position for many years, I feel like I have a lot of knowledge there and experience. I come in every day, do my part and try to play to the best of my ability so my team can be successful.”

The Slanton High School graduate is majoring in Kinesiology with plans to become a physical therapist after college.

As for the remainder of the softball season, Luera wants the Lady Jackets, “to go as far as we can go. And personally, I want to continue to be successful for my team and for myself. I want to produce more offensively and get better defensively.”

Though there is plenty to still accomplish on the diamond this spring, Luera has already established goals for her senior season as well.

“I hope we go into next year knowing what we're capable of, that our talent is more recognized and teams don't underestimate us as much as they did this year, and that the people Coach Mata brings in buy into things like we've already been buying into them,” Luera said. “I hope we're all on the same page from the start with the mindset that we're going to make the tournament go even farther than we do this year.”