Rollins head coach Michelle Frew is no stranger to a winning program. She has over 600 wins in her illustrious 20-year coaching career at Rollins, eclipsing 700 over the course of her 24 years altogether. Her Tars have been to Regionals eight times in the past ten years alone. Rollins simply hasn’t been able to capture that all too elusive South Regional title.
"We have had some great teams over the years, but could never get out of Regionals," Frew said. "In fact, when we returned to Valdosta this past weekend, many of us had a pit in our stomachs remembering how we lost the last time we were there."
That has all changed. Rollins locked up its first Regional title in program history this past weekend, defeating West Florida in the South 2 Regional championship game. It was a long time coming.
"Winning our first Regional Title still doesn't seem real," Frew said. "It is amazing how far our program has come. I am very proud of our young ladies. We had our share of ups and downs this year, but they never gave up."
The road wasn’t easy for Rollins as they had to take down two teams in the NFCA Top 25. First it was an upset against No. 22 West Florida and then it was onto No. 17 Valdosta State. Two consecutive wins led to an eventual rematch against UWF in the regional finals.
"Anytime that you have to go through Valdosta to advance, you know it is going to be a battle," Frew said "What is really exciting going into this week, is knowing that all year, with the exception of North Georgia early on, we have played quite well against the tough opponents like Shorter, St.Leo, West Florida and Valdosta.
"We had alumni from that team going crazy when we beat Valdosta. What made it even better was the way we won that game. It was the most incredible victory in all my 24 years of coaching. It was amazing!"Postseason play in any sport is full of the unexpected. Dramatic circumstances often define a team’s rise to glory. For Rollins, its shining moment came on May 6 in its second game against Valdosta. In the last half of the seventh inning, with one out left to work with, Rollins mounted a comeback for the ages and won in walk-off fashion.
"[Senior] Jule Kranz has really helped carry this team," Frew said of one of her heroes of that game. "She has gotten the big hit all year for us. The biggest hit though was against Valdosta when she hit a solo shot to tie the game with two outs. Jule just finds a way to win."
Speaking of seniors, none shined brighter than pitcher Niki Fogle. Fogle pitched all three games en route to earning Second Team All-South Region honors. She hurled three complete games, opening the Tars unlikely regional run with a no-hitter against UWF. She concluded the title run with a complete game shutout.
"My sophomore year, we were in the winner's bracket side of the championship and we ended up losing both games," Fogle said. "This year I went in with that in the back of my head. I was not going to let that happen again! When we finally got the win, I was so happy and excited. The seniors have always wanted to be apart of the team that finally made it past Regionals for Rollins and we did it!"
Fogle is part of a close knit group of seniors that have rode the emotional roller coaster that the past few years have been for Rollins softball. While Fogle leaves the Tars as their all-time leader in career wins, nothing compares to their victory this past weekend.
"It was really hard not making the Regional tournament my freshman year," Fogle said. "I still believe if we would have gone to the tournament we would have made it all the way. That really set a tone for my next three years. The seniors this year wanted to not just make it into Regionals but to do something that's never been done before at Rollins and advance to the Super Regionals. Being able to accomplish that will be something I can look back on with pride for the rest of my life. Although several of my teammates and I have set individual career records at Rollins, the feeling this year of accomplishment by the team means so much more than any individual accomplishment."
"With eight seniors, we knew that this season could go either way," Frew added. "Seniors just have so much going on with school and their futures. These girls decided that they were not going down without a fight. They wanted to make history and they did. Over the past four years, Niki has been our workhorse. We all know that as she goes, we go. She accepted that role like a champ. I have always felt like that Niki didn't get the respect that she deserved. So, before Regionals, I told her to put this team on her back and let's go win this thing. She did just that. She threw a no hitter, limited a very powerful VSU team to just 6 hits, and threw a shutout. I don't care what anyone says she is one of the best pitchers in the country.
"All of our seniors have worked their butts off to make this happen. They have helped everyone accept their roles, to put the team first."
Next up for this upstart Rollins team is one of the best teams in the country. They head to Florence, Alabama, for Super Regional play against North Alabama, who has been in the top 5 in the NFCA Polls for much of the season behind a program record 53-win season. The Tars are all too familiar with UNA. The last time they faced, UNA bumped them from the 2015 Regionals in extra innings.
"Make no mistake about it, we know that UNA is very good team," Frew said. "But, we are excited for the challenge.
"Every kid on this team has played a huge role in every pitch, every home run, every stolen base, and every out made on defense," Fogle said. "We all have a role and we believe in each other and our abilities to be the best. I cherish this year as a Tar more than any because of the team chemistry and how much fun I've had with my whole team on and off the field."