Insights article: 2013 women's fastpitch softball team

Smart Saints

Not only did the Saints softball team excel on the field in 2013 but the team was also a top performer in the classroom.

A total of seven student-athletes earned Academic All-GNAC honors, the most in the GNAC, including senior Madi Davis, who had the highest GPA among GNAC softball players for a third-straight year.

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In pursuit of excellence

By Rick Noren, head coach

One would think that, after coaching 20 years at the collegiate level, losing the final game of a season would become easier to accept, especially when reflecting upon all the success our team enjoyed this year. Yet, there is nothing quite like facing the reality of having no more games to play or practices to plan.

For the 2013 Saint Martin’s softball team, it has been a record-setting season that began not long after the first day of class in September. It was difficult to imagine improving upon the previous season, which saw our program go from nine wins in 2011 to 33 wins in 2012 — one of the greatest win-loss improvements in NCAA Division II softball history. But, every new season allows each coach and player to dream of greater things to come.

Our 2013 season began with great hope on the big island of Hawaii at the Kona Classic Softball Tournament. It was truly a struggle to play in paradise. We won only two of six games, then headed over to Oahu and played slightly better, winning both games of a double header against BYU-Hawaii. Little did we know that, following this inauspicious start, our team would come together and succeed beyond anyone’s imagination.

The players had worked hard preparing themselves physically for success. As any great team will tell you, however, it is not the physical preparation but the faith you have in yourself and those around you that leads to excellence. When I took over the softball program in 2011, the team had more than enough talent to win games, but it took a new level of belief by a few key players to turn a team with little expectation of winning into one that could see greatness in themselves and their teammates. This newfound belief emerged at the Best in the West tournament in Turlock, California, last year, as we played our way into the championship round for the first time in Saint Martin’s history.

By early April 2013, when this year’s team headed south to the same tournament, our play had definitely improved. Still, no one could have anticipated the results that were to come. We won five straight pool play games, including an upset of highly ranked Humboldt State University and a semi-final win over Chaminade, then found ourselves playing for the tournament championship on Sunday. Although it ended in a difficult loss, finishing second was another first in our program and a building block toward our ultimate goal of excellence.

Our success in California led to a fantastic month. We ended April with a 16-3 record, clinching the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) championship at home against Central Washington on the final day of league play. Although it was extremely rewarding and the first championship in program history, it didn’t guarantee a spot in post-season play. For the first time, the GNAC’s automatic berth to post-season was going to be awarded to the winner of the conference tournament the following weekend.

I believe it was our experience of playing into the championship game a month earlier that allowed the team to overcome any anxiety to win the tournament and earn a spot into the NCAA Regionals.

As the season climaxed, every member of the team felt a great amount of support from both the local and campus communities as we prepared for the trip to the NCAA Regionals. It was a blessing for the players to have professors and administrators who understood the importance of this opportunity. Whether it was moving a final exam to accommodate a player’s schedule or allowing a later checkout from the residence halls, the support from everyone was sincerely appreciated.

It was a difficult championship game loss to Humboldt State that ended our season and sent us on the long bus ride back to the SMU campus and back to reality, sad and frustrated, yet full of memories that will last a lifetime.

Each of us will have our own special memories from this magical season, whether it was the conference championship win, our conference tournament victory, our #17 national ranking in the Division II coaches’ poll, Lacey McGladrey earning First Team All-American and GNAC Most Valuable Player honors, Sam Munger being named GNAC Pitcher of the Year, or any one of the other accolades that the team collected in 2013. In a season filled with so many firsts, it is impossible to decide how one compares to another, but I’m not sure it gets any better than watching your players achieve excellence under the spotlight of post-season play.

It can be easy for some to question the value of athletics on a college campus, especially with recent national headlines that make all of us cringe. But when you’re involved with a team of players that excel academically, toil tirelessly in their athletic pursuits, and then work part-time to help pay for school, it makes you proud to say that you’re their coach.

Rick Noren, in his third season as head coach of Saints softball, earned Coach of the Year honors for the second consecutive season from the GNAC.