The Pittsburg State Gorillas are no strangers to winning. They have made the NCAA Championship tournament in three of the past four seasons.
This season, of the heels of yet another NCAA tournament appearance, Pittsburg State came into a very tough Mid-American Intercollegiate Conference losing five seniors, including leading scorer and four-time All-American Lizzy Jeronimus. They were projected to finish fourth, behind Emporia State, Fort Hays and Central Missouri. When Missouri Western started the season 18-0, the Gorillas knew they would have their work cut out for them.
“Our league is so tough, it’s the number one league in the nation,” PSU head coach Lane Lord said. “That class that we lost was the winningest class in the history of our program with 96 wins and three NCAA tournaments. When you lose those five players and the leadership and experience they brought, it’s tough. The quality of depth had to come from five incoming freshman. But we felt like if we could stay healthy we could compete.”
PSU has really caught fire of late. After two big wins this past week, the Gorillas find themselves amid a six-game winning streak and very much in the hunt for an NCAA bid, and quite possibly a shot at the MIAA title. The past week started as they avenged their first loss of the season, upsetting then-No. 6 Missouri Western State 83-80.
“Missouri Western is probably the most talented team in Division II. LaQuinta Jefferson should get drafted, she’s unbelievable,” Lord said of his opponent. “The first time we played them we had 18 turnovers, and when they get out in transition, it’s hard to stop them. This time we only had 12 turnovers and gave ourselves a chance to win this game. That’s our keys to victory. Don’t turn the ball over and get to the free throw line.
“It really gave our kids a lot of confidence. If we can hold our turnovers down against one of the top teams in the country it really boosts our confidence. But in this league it was a great win, you have to just go get ready for the next game.”
Three nights later, the Gorillas struggled for the majority of the game against Northwest Missouri. But this young squad showed its backbone and rallied behind a 29-9 fourth quarter to overcome a late double-digit deficit and rise victorious.
“We came out and we were a little bit flat,” Lord said. “Northwest really shoved it down our throats for three quarters. We really turned it on in the fourth quarter. Kylie Gafford led us, and then Mikaela Burgess who really struggled shooting the ball that night, scored 13 points in the fourth quarter. She hit two back-to-back threes that got our fans back into the game and got our emotions going. It showed a resilient effort.”
Gafford has been a large part of their recent success. She took home the MIAA Player of the Week Award this past week as she sparked both victories with 24 points against MWSU and then starting the comeback against NMSU on Saturday. In both contests her free throws sealed the deal and put the Gorillas ahead for good. Along with fellow senior Cathy Brugman, they have displayed the kind of leadership and poise this young team needs.
“Those two have been through the wars, they been through the battles,” Lord said. “I remember our first road trip this year, we had seven people that had never been on a college road trip. You forget about those kind of things when you’ve had a veteran team, but Kylie and Cathy have the ability to teach kids to be mature. Their ability to carry on the culture here — it’s so hard to build, but so easy to lose — you have to have seniors that can show what winning habits are and those two have done that for us.”
Sophomore Mikaela Burgess has played a large role as well. Burgess had a terrific freshman campaign, but PSU would really need her to take her game to the next level as she quickly became one of the veterans on this young squad. She has responded by becoming the team's leading scorer this season. She has dropped 18 or more points in every game of their current six-game win streak.
“She’s been our go to player,” Lord said. “Having Lizzy Jeronimus and the other four seniors last year, they let her come in as a freshman and be a player. They knew that she could help us win games. I think she grew from that experience on how to be a leader, and how to conduct herself in practice. What makes her such a special player is her ability to want the ball in big situations.”
PSU finds themselves in a very favorable position, one that has them in control of their own destiny. First they head to Washburn for a bout against head coach Ron McHenry who has the highest winning percentage in Division II amongst coaches with 10 or more years experience. Then it is on to Emporia State, a school in which Lord says that PSU has had some “epic battles” with over the past few seasons. Should they get through those two games, Fort Hayes awaits.
“We don’t have to rely on other teams upsetting a Fort Hays or Emporia, because we have all those teams coming up,” Lord said. “All seven teams we have left are in the top half of the league. That’s why we coach in the MIAA and play in it, to coach and play against the best. But we control our own destiny. Five of those games are on the road, so we have our work cut out for us.”
Softball sees top teams in action
While most of the nation prepares to open it’s DII Softball season this coming weekend, the first ever Southern Softball Showdown officially opened the year this past weekend. It was a battle which showcased four teams from the Peach Belt Conference and four teams from the Gulf South Conference. By weekend’s end, the GSC would claim the crown with a combined 13-3 record.
The Showdown saw three of the nation’s NFCA Preseason Top 25 in action. The reigning champion and NFCA Preseason No. 1 North Georgia Nighthawks struggled in their first action of the season. The would drop all four games of the Showdown, including consecutive games against two of the nation’s Top 20. Their opening day loss against University of North Alabama was the first opening game loss for the Nighthawks since 2005.
Preseason No. 18 University of Alabama Huntsville came out of the gates strong with a three-win weekend. They won all three of their games by a combined score of 38-12, including a big 16-7 win over UNG, while suffering a 1-0 loss to Armstrong State. Savannah Smith did most of the damage, going 7-for-11 with three home runs en route to GSC Player of the Week honors.
The big winners of the Showdown were preseason No. 6 Valdosta State. The Blazers went 4-0 over the weekend, including consecutive shutouts over Augusta State and Columbus State. They concluded the weekend with an 11-4 victory over UNG. Huntyre Elling took home GSC Pitcher of the Week honors going 2-0 behind two shutout performances.