SALEM, Va. -– Richie Bruister’s plan that he offered to execute if Texas Woman’s chose to hire him as their new softball coach before the 2009 season was rather simple.

He told those interviewing him that he was aware of the program’s storied past, and that he would bring in quality players, who would be just as solid students, and send out a team that all Pioneer fans and alums would be proud to support.

OK, maybe Bruister isn’t the first coach ever to make that kind of guarantee. But not all of them actually follow up the promise with substance.

Bruister has. Thursday, TWU played in its first NCAA Division II Softball Championship. It’s been a journey that all involved have enjoyed.

“I can tell you that we’ve found the right guy for the job,” TWC Director of Athletics Chalese Connors said. “When Richie joined us, he knew where the holes in our program were and what the weaknesses were. And he started filling those immediately.”

Bruister said he started his rebuilding program with just a few basic steps. No. 1 was to make sure everyone on the team understood that they were in college to be students. He earned a reputation as a coach who emphasized academics while at his previous job at Henderson State.

“I run my program like a business,” Bruister said. “When I recruit, I give players one guarantee: It’s that you will come here, graduate, finish your eligibility, and then you will be successful in your lives.”

It didn’t take long for that part of his plan to be implicated. The Pioneer players collectively have their acts together in the classrooms – he said in three of his first four years, his team ranked in the top 10 nationally in academics, and he expects this team to be the fourth.

“I would love to say to them that they all could aspire to go on and play pro, but that’s not reality,” Bruister said. “So I make sure they are prepared for life when they leave.”

The other part of his initial plan was to instill a winning attitude – something he wasn’t sure how it would take to make happen. To most everyone’s surprise, it happened almost immediately.

The story is one Bruister loves to tell.

The Pioneers were coming off of a record-breaking 42-loss season in 2008. Most of that team was returning for 2009, so Bruister was not sure how long it would take to build some confidence in his new team. Late in the season, TWU was 22-24, but then won three of its next four to get back to .500.

Knowing already that they would not qualify for any kind of postseason play, the Pioneers were in their final regular-season game back in 2009, play at Lone Star Conference rival Tarleton State. With a 25-25 record, a win would mean a winning season. A loss would leave TWU one win below .500.

“It was great,” he said. “We were ahead, but they had a full-count, two outs and the bases loaded.”

Bruister said the Tarlton State batter watched strike three go across the plate, and the game was done.

“You had thought our girls had won the World Series that day,” Bruister said. “But they had learned how to win, and be winners.”

Since then the wins have crept up a little bit each year. Last season, TWU reached the super regionals, but got knocked out at that point. This year, the Pioneers entered this week’s tournament with a school record 51 wins – a record that is listed right above that all-time losses mark in the school’s media guide.

Since the postseason, only one team has scored more than two runs against the Pioneers.

“And every time we win, they’re breaking another record,” Connors said. “I’m just so excited for how this season has developed.”