DENVER, Colo.--- Tears of joy flowed freely from the players on North Alabama softball team late Saturday afternoon as they talked about what it meant to be part of the 2016 NCAA Division II Softball Championship team.
“I don’t have words for it,” said North Alabama senior third baseman Harlie Barkley. “I never played in a game this big. In high school, I went to state once and we lost twice. This is awesome.”
The seniors spoke highly on coach Ashley Cozart for constantly showing confidence in their ability. That was evident early Friday evening when North Alabama suffered a 5-0 loss to Humboldt State in Game 1 of the best-of-three championship series.
Cozart entered the postgame session stating those games happen in softball from time to time. She had all the confidence in the world that the Lions were going to roar back on Saturday.
Seniors Brooklynn Clark and Courtney Shields sat next to Cozart on Friday echoed those same sentiments. Clark said the Lions would make the adjustments at the plate.
The way Shields saw it, Saturday represented the final games the seniors would ever play for North Alabama. They were going to enjoy the moment, go out and have fun. And yes, win two games.
The Lions turned Saturday afternoon at Regency Athletic Complex in Denver into joyous softball celebration that North Alabama fans and alums will remember for years to come.
In the must-win Game 2 of the championship series, North Alabama quickly returned to the powerful offensive machine it showed in its first three games in the NCAA Division II Softball Championship.
The Lions were swinging at the first pitch and making solid contact. They scored three runs in the bottom of the first and added another run in the second. That was more than enough for junior pitcher Hillary Carpenter, who kept a scrappy Humboldt team off balance.
“We had to come out with a better approach,” Clark said. “We knew it was the last time to play softball no matter what so we played softball the way we know how,” Clark said.
The crowning moment in North Alabama’s 10-1 victory was a five-run, sixth inning in which Shields, Clark and junior Anna Gayle Norris all hit home runs.
“We came back and showed what UNA softball is all about,” Shields said. “We came in and did our jobs and that was great.”
Still, North Alabama had one more victory to get to capture its first ever national softball title. Humboldt State had already shown an ability to battle back from a loss in the national tournament.
In addition, the Lumberjacks were throwing junior Madison Williams, who tossed a masterful three-hit shutout against North Alabama on Friday. She was the only pitcher in the tournament to halt the Lions’ offensive onslaught.
North Alabama was ready this time. Like the first game, the Lions attacked early, jumping on the first good pitch they saw. They scored one run in the first and three more in the second for a 4-0 lead.
“This team is just amazing,” Cozart said. “All year long they have won games in different ways. They've held leads, they have come back. We knew today, coming into this that we have done this before. We were not nervous or tight. They just came out and played like it was their last game.”
Once again, Carpenter kept the Lumberjacks from stringing hits together. Humboldt State managed one run in the fourth.
When Humboldt State’s final hitter grounded out to second base, the North Alabama players celebrated a 4-1 championship victory in a season that saw the Lions go 60-7.
Humboldt State, which finished 54-8-1, also deserves credit for its performance. The Lumberjacks played championship-caliber softball throughout the five-day tournament. They just happened to run into a team that had a dynamic offense that was executing at a high level.
“I can’t be any prouder because they came to the biggest stage and they competed,” Humboldt State coach Shelli Sarchett said. “We had our backs against the wall against Armstrong State and we won that. We came through in the first game of the championship series.
“They continued to fight, even in those last two games. They continued to fight until the last out. They didn’t give up. They stayed strong. They didn’t come out on top, but came very close.”
North Alabama scored 38 runs in the 2016 NCAA Division II Softball Championship, which was the most in the history of the tournament. The previous mark was 32.
“We just never give up,” Clark said. “We know what it takes to get where we are. The whole year we just fought back from adversity. I love every one of these girls. This team is just amazing.”