Sept. 1, 2009

Courtesy of Messiah Athletics

Montclair, NJ – Chances are good that Messiah head coach Amy Weaver never forgets her 300th career win.

National championships are serious mnemonic devices, you know.

Weaver got her 300th victory as a collegiate head softball coach and Messiah finished a dominating post-season run with its first national title in program history Monday, defeating 17th-ranked Coe College by a 2-0 score for the second time in as many days to win the 2009 NCAA Division III Softball National Championship at Montclair State University’s MSU Softball Stadium.

The Falcons’ softball team joins both the men’s soccer and women’s soccer program to win national championships in the 2008-2009 academic year, bringing Messiah’s grand total of team national titles to nine (men’s soccer has six and women’s soccer has two).

Monday, however, the focus was solely on Messiah softball, as Weaver’s squad finished off a post-season run with a perfect 8-0 record – winning its last 23 games while giving up just a single run in World Series play.

The Falcons committed just two errors in the entire NCAA post-season, playing mistake-free ball throughout the championships weekend.

“This program has come a long way,” said Messiah’s 12th-year head coach, who began as an assistant 17 years ago. “I actually go back even further to my playing days at Messiah. When I joined it as an assistant coach, we were just starting to climb up the ladder. Our first NCAA appearance was in 1994. We didn’t make it to the national championship, but we made it to the first round. The program has just continued to get better and better. We’ve had our ups and downs, but every year we have tried to get to this level, and that has always been our goal.

“Obviously, we are very, very excited to get it done.”

Weaver rode the right arm of freshman pitcher Jessica Rhoads (28-1) throughout the post-season, and the Dillsburg, Pa. native delivered with astounding results. After striking out a season-high 19 batters in Messiah’s 2-0 win over Coe (41-13) in Sunday’s national semi-final, Rhoads sat down 13 Kohawks Monday, allowing just two hits while walking only two.

Rhoads finished the championship weekend striking out a staggering 53 batters versus five walks in 28 innings in four games. She threw 67 of 94 pitches for strikes in Monday’s victory, and struck out 12 of the 13 Kohawk batters swinging.

“We’ve had a lot of good pitchers, and we’ve even had a first-team All-American,” Weaver said. “But Jess is the best pitcher that I have ever coached.”

Rhoads also wasn’t too shabby as a hitter over the championship weekend, as her presence at the plate eventually led to Messiah’s first run Monday afternoon. After the Falcons stranded two base runners in the top of the first inning, Coe elected to intentionally walk Rhoads in the fourth, as starting Kohawk pitcher Ashlee Simon (24-6) gave up a lead-off double to freshman Jaclyn Merkel.

Rhoads’ blasted a two-run homer to provide Messiah all of its runs in Sunday’s semi-final win, a fact that was obviously not lost on Coe head coach Bob Timmons Monday. After Rhoads was issued a fourth-inning intentional pass, junior Lindsay Hall executed a perfect sacrifice bunt, moving Merkel to third and freshman Tiffany Stokes – who entered to pinch run for Rhoads – to third.

With first base again open, Simon intentionally walked junior Abby Bergakker, bringing freshman Lauren Seneca to the plate with just one out retired. The Falcons’ shortstop then hit a deep fly ball to right centerfield, as Merkel easily tagged up to score the game’s first run.

Weaver sent Stokes home all the way from second, but a perfect relay throw cut her down at the plate.

Like so many times during this post-season, it wouldn’t matter.

Rhoads continued to operate in the pitcher’s circle with little drama, striking out Coe’s first three batters of the game while scattering two singles – one in the second inning and another in the sixth. Rhoads’ two issued walks gave Coe its only other base runners of the day in the third and fourth innings, but Bergakker successfully threw out runners attempting to steal in both the second and fourth innings, snubbing any potential momentum from the designated home team.

It was Bergakker who would give Rhoads and her teammates with some much needed breathing room in the seventh inning, as the Grand Rapids, Mich. native blasted her fourth home run of the season to lead off the stanza, ripping a deep shot over the left centerfield wall to make it a 2-0 affair.

As Messiah’s entire roster waited for Bergakker to cross the plate, it was clear that the junior catcher had realized what she had done: With hands on her head as she trotted down the third-base line, Bergakker continued to look to the sky with a wide smile across her face.

“That was huge, because with a 1-0 lead you know that if you make one little mistake they can score and tie the game,” Rhoads would later say. “With a 2-0 lead, you feel like you still have a little room for error.”

There would be no Messiah mistakes in the defensive half of the third, however, as Rhoads struck out Coe’s Chelsea Zaugg before relying on her defense to finish off the game in spectacular fashion: Rhoads got the Kohawks’ Amy Hanse to foul up down the first base line, while junior Nicole Adams made a brilliant catch just inches from the Falcons’ dugout.

With Coe down to its final out, Kohawks’ rightfielder Danielle Leavens tried to bunt aboard.

As the ball was popped up ever so slightly, Hall made a diving attempt from her stance at third base.

Incredibly, Hall hung on to a ball that certainly looked like it would drop. As she lay face down in the dirt just a few feet in front of home plate, her teammates piled on top of her.

For the first time in school history, Messiah had won a national championship in the sport of softball.

“We talked about needing a team effort and needing every single person on the team to win this, and that’s what we got,” said Weaver, who used 13 players in Monday’s contest. “We won this because we were a team. Relationships off the field will take you a long way. Sure, you’ve got to have the talent, but I think this team won because they were a true team in every sense of the word. They care about each other, they have fun off the field together and just enjoy being with each other. That’s really important stuff.”

Bergakker, who was named to the All-Tournament team along with Rhoads and freshman Abi Buchler, agreed.

“This is without question one of the best teams I’ve ever been on in my entire life,” she said. “We have fun together no matter what we’re doing. It’s just a family.”

Messiah (43-4) entered the championships weekend as the only unranked team in the field, as well as being the only squad without an NFCA All-American on its roster.

Following Monday’s win, however, Weaver said that didn’t matter – at last.

“Our team was completely motivated because we felt that we were underestimated, all year long, really,” she said. “We felt like some of our players were worthy [of All-American consideration] but like I said before, it is what it is. Coming in we knew that we were a good team, so we just had to prove ourselves. That’s exactly what we did.”

As Monday’s title gave Messiah its third team championship of the academic year, Weaver spoke of intrinsic motivation within school walls. She said that the Falcons’ success in soccer – along with other nationally-prominent sports such as field hockey, women’s basketball and track and field – has driven her program as well.

“It feels good to have our championship,” she said. “We’ve been motivated by the success of our other programs. We wanted to accomplish the same thing, and that has been a constant motivating force for us.”

Coe defeated 25th-ranked Gustavus Adolphus College (42-9) by a 4-2 score earlier in the day to advance to Monday’s championship game. Messiah won the 2009 national championship despite scoring just nine runs over the weekend – the third fewest runs ever scored by a championship team in the national event and only the third time a team has scored 10 runs or less en route to a crown.

The Falcons gave up just one run over the championship weekend and just four scores during its 8-0 NCAA post-season run, however, trailing on the scoreboard for a grand total of just two innings.

“I think we played our best softball of the year (in the post-season),” Weaver said. “That’s your goal. These were close games, but you expect that because every team here is really good. For us, though, it comes back to our team as a whole. I truly can say that everyone we have is a team player. You tell someone they’re going to pinch hit, and they grab a bat and start swinging. Our bench players know their roles and are constantly ready to fill in where we need them. All of our girls pull for one another. It really was a total team effort all the way through, and that makes it all the more special.”