The 64-team DII Softball championship field was announced this past Monday. While there are many fascinating and exciting storylines that come with nearly every team in the postseason, there are three heading into the first weekend of the regional play that should be paid close attention.
Texas A&M-Commerce riding emotional weekend into first championships
The Texas A&M-Commerce softball team are newcomers to the championship field, having never been to NCAA postseason play before 2016. That’s quite the remarkable feat when you consider the fact that the Lions played the program's first game on Feb. 1, 2015.
Last season, head coach Richie Bruister led the Lions to a 29-24 record, one of the best debut season in modern Division II history. This year the Lions advanced to the the tournament in just their second year of play.
“It is certainly exciting,” Bruister said. “It’s a win for our university and community. To be a second year program, you obviously have to start it the right way to have this kind of success early. My hat’s off to our administration.”
That driving force behind that administration was Dr. Dan R. Jones. Dr. Jones was the man who approved the creation of the softball team and funded it and its facilities. This past Friday, at the age of 63, Dr. Jones passed away.
“Great man, very passionate about athletics,” Bruister said. “Without his leadership we certainly wouldn’t have a softball program and if somehow they did, it wouldn’t be as good as it is today. We were able to thrive under his leadership.”
With heavy hearts and the letters D.J. upon their uniforms, the Lions now prepare for their first regional game against Colorado Mesa this Thursday. It is a mindset that this team is unfamiliar with, as this is a situation unlike any other they have been in during their playing careers.
“We’re trying to teach them how it works, how every game is important,” Bruister said. “Trying to explain how things work to a young team that has never been there is a challenge in itself, just to get them to buy in and understand the importance of that starting back in February.”
It was way back in February, in fact, that Bruister knew he had something special. His team had a busy, successful first weekend. They went 3-1 in the St. Mary’s Tournament, including an 11-5 opening day victory against Heartland Conference tournament champion Lubbock Christian University. That set the pace for their season. Their speed would become their trademark as they finished second in the nation with 3.17 stolen bases per game.
“You look at that first weekend and our team’s speed,” Bruister said. “We’re extremely fast, and I didn’t know how that was going to play out. We don’t have as much power as some teams, but we are well balanced. We put a lot of pressure on some defenses that made them make a lot of mistakes and that allowed us to score a lot of runs. We knew we had something special right there. Then it was a question of how everything would come together with our young pitching staff.”
Lions win! Sturm walks it off with a grand slam! #BallGame #ThePride #WeAreLions pic.twitter.com/1M1XkPWwA0— Lion_Softball (@Lion_Softball) April 6, 2016
The Lions reeled off a 37-16 record while going 18-14 in the conference. They took their bumps and bruises along the way, but in the end, this team learned how to come together.
“We ended up finishing third in our conference,” Bruister said. “That is certainly good considering we were picked to finish sixth in one of the strongest conferences in the country. We’re proud of where we finished. It’s just another door that our team has opened up; now let’s go get another door and open it up.”
Starting a new team leaves the door wide open for leaders to step up. Most of this team started together from day one. While there may have been seniors, they lacked seniority. Bruister was hoping to find a few players that could create the culture of his new team and form the winning attitude for the future of Texas A&M-Commerce softball.
“You hope that positive leadership arises,” Bruister said. “[Seniors] Luci Ponce and Kylene Hatton have been great leaders for us. We looked at our sophomore class also to take the baton from the older ones, Baylea Higgs and Cherie Jackson. We leaned on them with their positive leadership to get us through. It’s unchartered waters. You have to convince them that if you do these things and get the rest of the team to buy in, good things are going to happen.”
This season had a little more meaning for Luci Ponce. Never mind the stats, though they were great (.319 BA, 13 HRs and 57 RBI). Never mind the accolades, which were also impressive. She took home a gold glove and First Team All-LSC honors. But, Ponce’s season was magical because she was the first ever Lions softball player.
“She was our original signee in the program,” Bruister said. “She had many opportunities to go other places. I’m very excited for her to give her that opportunity to compete for a championship. That’s what you want as a coach, for your ladies to have that kind of opportunity. I’m extremely excited that she’s going to be able to go out on top. She gets to leave a lasting legacy, and a winning legacy is even better.”
Thursday begins the next leg of the journey for this ever-evolving pride of Lions. One thing is for certain. There is definitely a well deserved buzz in the air in Commerce, Texas.
“We’re just excited to play someone new and get that true tournament feel,” Bruister said of Colorado Mesa. “We’re just going to go out there and play our game and hopefully it’s good enough to beat them.”
Kelsey Hoppel’s undefeated YEAR continuesOn April 4th, senior guard Kelsey Hoppel put the exclamation point on an illustrious Lubbock Christian basketball career. She dropped 27 points in the DII Women’s Basketball Championship, helping lead LCU to a title in their first season of eligibility behind a perfect 35-0 record.
Less than a month later, Hoppel found herself in the circle for the Lady Chaps pitching them to a 9-1 victory over No. 9 St. Mary’s. The win brought Hoppel to a perfect 4-0 on the season. More importantly, it gave the Lady Chaps the Heartland Conference tournament title.
LCU returns to the place of their last victory this Thursday, this time as the No. 6 seed in the South Central Regionals. Their opponent is Texas Woman’s, who recently lost the LSC title to No. 1 seeded West Texas A&M.
Big Three strikeout pitchers on displayReigning NFCA National Pitcher of the Week Courtney Poole had an amazing weekend for the defending champs. Poole went 3-0 en route to capturing the Peach Belt Conference tournament championship for North Georgia. She opened the weekend with her sixth career no-hitter and ended the weekend with a two-hit shutout in the PBC championship game. Poole brings her astounding 49-2 record, 406 strikeouts and her nation’s best 0.64 ERA into UNG’s title defense, hosting the Southeast Regional.
UIndy’s Morgan Foley went 4-0 on the weekend, leading her team to their second ever Great Lakes Valley Conference title. Foley pitched consecutive shutouts, including a no-hitter of Truman State, while striking out 48 batters over her 26 innings pitched. She now sits at 39-2 with a 0.75 ERA and 476 strikeouts, and UIndy is set to host the Midwest Regional.
Hannah Perryman also had a big weekend as her UMSL Tritons fell just short, losing to UIndy in the GLVC championship game. Perryman finished the season as the nation’s leader in strikeouts as her 554 strikeouts were the best across any level of collegiate softball. After a monster season — setting the DII record in both all-time strikeouts and perfect games — Perryman became the first player in DII history to be selected in the National Pro Fastpitch Draft. All eyes will be on the Midwest bracket in hopes of one last Foley/Perryman showdown.