Nine years after inception, West Texas A&M on verge of title
SALEM, Va. -- More than once, Kevin Blaskowski paused as he shared his thoughts on what he and his West Texas A&M team was going to experience on Memorial Day.
“We’re an emotional group,” he said. “We haven’t tamped down our emotions all year long, and it won’t start now.”
There is one slight difference with Blaskowski and his team -- the coach has built his program from nothing to the championship game in nine seasons. He moved to Canyon, Texas, back in 2006, when WT added softball to its growing list of varsity sports.
And earning the chance to play in Monday’s game has been the objective since he arrived.
“When I walked on campus in Canyon, I felt like someday we were going to be sitting in this situation,” Blaskowski said. “I haven’t veered from that plan since then. I believe in what we do. I believe in our offense, I believe in our philosophy off of the field. All the things that go into being a part of Lady Buffs softball, it was a dream. And I had to sell that dream to players every time we go on the recruiting trial because we hadn’t been here yet.”
The move from newcomers to contenders happened at a rapid pace. After three losing seasons in its first three years, WT had its first winning season in 2009. The Lady Buffs also qualified for the Lone Star Conference tournament that year for the first time. One season later, WT earned its first NCAA tournament bid.
As the program improved, Blaskowski was recruiting more talented players. He didn’t have a lot of trophies to show girls trying to pick a college, but he stayed on point with his message. Blaskowski told the players he wanted that with their help, WT’s softball team was going to continuously improve and it was not far away from playing for a national championship.
“I believed in this program 100 percent,” said senior catcher Mallory Wyatt, who signed with WT in advance of the 2011 season. “Even though they didn’t have [a championship yet], the girls before had built the program to the point where it is today. I had this awesome feeling that someday we would be here and that I would be there.”
In her freshman season, that feeling nearly became a reality. The Lady Buffs won their regional tournament and then opened their Super Regional at Midwestern State with a win. However, MSU recovered from the first-game loss and swept a doubleheader the next day win the Super Regional and advance to the national tournament.
“It was definitely tough that year,” Wyatt said. “But we had that fire from that year to keep moving forward and not look back and feel like that was the year. We needed to keep building.”
That near-miss for the Lady Buffs was followed by two more seasons where the championship remained out of reach. Players and coaches alike were a little frustrated. But no one was giving up. Their coach was not a quitter, and any player who wanted to be part of his program couldn’t quite either.
And when Blaskowski sees a player he believes will fit into his team’s scheme, he competed the same way, senior Alyssa Lemos probably knows this better than anyone. She first met her future coach her freshman year, when he introduced himself after he first saw her play in a summer tournament.
“Honestly, he handed me a brochure, and I had no idea where West Texas A&M was,” said Lemos, who grew up in suburban Dallas.
By the end of her sophomore year, Lemos was drawing interest from softball coaches all across the Southwest. Then she had a life-changing moment when her mother, Roni, was diagnosed with, and later died of, ovarian cancer.
“As you might be able to imagine, I lost everything,” Lemos said. “I couldn’t field a ground ball to save my life. I couldn’t hit. And I watched every other coach walk away from me.”
Lemos said she had college coaches flat-out tell her that they believed her chance to play college softball was now gone. Blackowski was not one of those guys.
“He was the only one left standing, and he kept telling me ‘I believe in you kid because I know that you’re going to get through this,’” Lemos said. “And I saw him sitting there watching me every single game, seeing my fail, and he still believed in me. So I thought if he’s going to be there for me through the toughest part of my life, how can I not succeed in college with him?”
Last fall, Lemos said she and some teammates when to watch their school’s volleyball program, which had won 17 conference titles and three national championships coming into the 2013-14 season. They noticed when looking at the championship banners that in those seasons, the volleyball team never lost more than 10 games.
“We believed that if we lost less than 10 games, we should have a shot at a national title,” Lemos said.
There were some close calls. The Lady Buffs had to get past Midwestern State in the regionals. The two teams met three times that weekend, but it was WT that advanced with a 7-2 win in the tournament-deciding contest.
Next up was a Super Regional with St. Mary’s (Texas), which proceeded to win the first game of the best-of-three series -- on WT’s home field. But that would not happen again. The Lady Buffs swept the next two games -- shutting out the Rattlers in both games and advanced to nationals.
And now, here they are playing for a national championship.
“The opportunity that lies before us,” Blaskowski said. “… We have an opportunity to win a national championship. It’s been 23 years of my career, and this is my first time. I’ve coached some really good student athletes. I’ve had some really good teams. But to have this opportunity with this team and this group of young ladies, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”