ST. GEORGE, UTAH – The Wabash Valley College Lady Warrior softball team has already been through tornadoes, hail, snow and wind on their way to the NJCAA Division I softball tournament. Now that they’re here, the real adventure begins.
The 16-team national championship hunt begins today with eight first-round matches at the Canyon Complex, a 20-minute bus ride from WVC’s team hotel. Seeded 15th, the Lady Warriors open against No. 2 Wallace State, Ala. at 7:30 p.m.
The game can be heard live on WVJC 89.1 FM, and online at bashradio.com. NJCAA webcast coverage will be spotty, with crews airing games played on only two of the eight diamonds at the complex. Consult their website (njcaa.org) daily for the schedule.
Tuesday night the team heard from Olympic gold medalist Amanda Freed, the featured speaker at the pre-tournament banquet held at the Dixie Center. She told the 400 in attendance to not let the nervous feeling they will awaken to on Wednesday bother them. “It’s the best feeling,” she said. “It’s your body telling you to take it to the next level.”
Freed, a UCLA pitching great who was part of the U.S. gold medal winning team in the 2004 Olympics, said her goal was for a pitch count “of 10 or less” per inning. So she offered hitters this piece of advice: “Make that pitcher work. Take her deep into the count.”
WVC head coach Paul Schnarre, the winningest coach in juco history with 1,208 wins, was the featured speaker in 2007, the year he was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame. This year marks the 10th trip to the national tournament by a Schnarre coached team. It is also the 30th anniversary of his first tourney berth, that year coming at Benton Harbor, Mich.
Wabash enters with a record of 37-11 and an undefeated Region 24 championship that prevented Great Rivers Athletic Conference rival Lake Land from making a fifth straight trip to the tournament. Wallace State enters at 62-12, the highest win total of any team in the field.
The Lady Warriors are the better hitting team coming in, with a team batting average of .353 compared to the .331 mark of Wallace State. In the circle, the Lions may have the better team ERA (1.67 to 2.56), but WVC stalwart Allison Webster (22-2) has a 1.47 ERA and appears capable of handling the vast majority of innings this week.
Tuesday, at a two-hour practice open to scouts, Webster seemed to draw the most attention. She is on the radar of several Division I schools, and a couple were on hand to watch her pitch.
If there is one statistical category that favors Wabash, it may be strikeouts. The Lady Warriors have fanned only 85 times all year, less than two times per game and the fifth-lowest total in the country. Wallace State has struck out 233 times, over three times per game, ranking much lower at 142 on the juco list.
Records do not come close to paralleling the seeds in the tournament. No. 1 seed Salt Lake, Utah (47-7) has only the third highest win total. Jefferson, Mo. (55-4), the team with the highest winning percentage, is seeded 11th and Western Nebraska (56-12), second in wins, is seeded dead last.
The two-day trip, covering over 1,600 miles, was not without excitement. Saturday, the entourage was treated to a show by Mother Nature, beginning with tornadoes on the ground in western Kansas. Though out of harms reach as the team bus motored along Interstate 70, cell phone cameras clicked as the twister, located about two miles away, stayed on the ground for several minutes.
A short time later, the bus and all traffic was stopped for several minutes as golf-ball sized hail pelted the bus and covered the pavement. Then, before the bus could reach its’ destination of Denver, Col., a winter storm warning took effect, with snow slowing traffic. Around five inches of snow was reported in the Denver metro, not such an unusual event as it would seem. In the higher elevations, Denver registers a May snow on average of every other year.
Sunday, with weather no longer a factor, passengers were treated to the stark but abject beauty of the American West. Stops were made for photo opportunities, including a breathtaking vista overlooking Black Dragon Canyon in east-central Utah.
NOTES: St. George is located in the southwest corner of Utah, an area known as “Dixie.” According to legend, that name originated in the time of Brigham Young, who upon arrival in the Salt Lake City area with his Mormon flock after being exiled from their original settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois, dispatched southern-based followers who joined the trek west to the St. George area to grow cotton and make clothes. Cotton is still one of the only crops grown in this area.