NewsLady Cougars Cap off Successful Season with Region Berth
written by Dave Parsons, Sports Information Director
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio - The Mount Vernon Nazarene University women's fastpitch softball team capped off the most successful season in eight years by advancing to the NAIA Region IX Tournament for the first time as the Lady Cougars finished the 2003 campaign with a 29-20 overall record.
The season began with a pair of non-conference doubleheaders at the University of Rio Grande and at Cedarville University. After going just 1-3 in those games, the team headed south to Orlando, Florida, to take part in the Orlando Rebel Games.
While in Florida, MVNU posted a 7-3 record against NCAA Division III teams that included a win over Western Connecticut State University, who was ranked eighth at the time nationally. Freshman pitcher Heather Clark also tossed a perfect game in an 8-0 victory over St. Olaf (Minn.) College on March 25, and the next day, head coach Jeana Howald picked up the 300th victory of her career - all with the Lady Cougars - in a 2-1 win over the University of Chicago (Ill.).
Upon returning north with an 8-6 record, MVNU split its next eight games to stand at 12-10 overall. One of the wins was a 2-1 victory over Walsh University, the eventual NAIA Region IX Tournament champion who the Lady Cougars had not beaten since 1996.
At that point, MVNU put together an eight-game winning streak by sweeping doubleheaders from Seton Hill (Pa.) University, Malone College, Ursuline College, and Notre Dame College to improve to 20-10.
Following a split in a rematch at Ursuline, the Lady Cougars hosted the National Christian College Athletic Association East Region Tournament. After going 0-2 in pool play, MVNU rallied to beat Malone 7-4 in eight innings in the semifinals to advance to the championship game. There, the Lady Cougars fell to Geneva (Pa.) College to finish as the region runner-up.
MVNU dropped four of its next six games against Ohio Dominican University, Tiffin University, and Walsh as the team's record stood at 24-18. However, the Lady Cougars swept Malone again to close the regular season 26-18 and finish third in the American Mideast Conference Central Division with a 13-7 mark.
With the sweep of Malone, MVNU earned the sixth-seed in the AMC Tournament best-of-three series and the right to host seventh-seeded Shawnee State University in the Lady Cougars' first NAIA playoff appearance since 1997. MVNU rallied to win the first game 5-4 in eight innings and then shut out the Lady Bears, a perennial NAIA power, 6-0 in the second game to advance in the postseason.
The sweep of Shawnee State earned MVNU another home game against Mountain State (W.Va.), an independent, in the NAIA Region IX qualifying game to determine the final spot in the NAIA Region IX Tournament. The Lady Cougars posted their second straight playoff shutout with a 3-0 victory to advance to the six-team NAIA Region IX Tournament for the first time in school history.
At the NAIA Region IX Tournament, sixth-seeded MVNU fell 11-1 to third-seeded Ohio Dominican in the first round. Then, the Lady Cougars saw their season come to an end in the loser's bracket as Rio Grande rallied for two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning for a 4-3 victory.
As a team, MVNU set several defensive records in 2003. The team's .952 fielding percentage was the best in the program's history to go along with school records of 1,002 putouts and 509 assists. The Lady Cougars also played in a school-record 49 games and record 1,347 at bats. The team was also involved in a lot of close games with 13 of MVNU's losses coming by three runs or less.
"Coming into the season, we thought that our strengths would be pitching and defense," said Howald. "Those two things proved to be the foundation for our successful year. Then, as our hitting progressed throughout the season and we became more confident at the plate, we were able to put together an outstanding season. The only disappointment for the players was not reaching the 30-win mark that they wanted to reach so badly."
Individually, several players had outstanding seasons. Jenni Davis and Debbie Dobson, the two seniors on the squad, closed out the careers by leading the team to the third-highest win total in the program's history. Davis, an outfielder, posted a .311 batting average and was second on the team with 50 hits and 27 runs scored. Meanwhile, Dobson, another outfielder, batted .237 and was second on the team with 26 RBI. Both Davis and Dobson had seven outfield assists.
"Jenni and Debbie have been quality members of our program for the past four years," said Howald. "They have been a key to our success, and their leadership on and off the field has been tremendous. They have been great examples of what players in our program should strive to be on the field, in the classroom, and in their personal walks with Christ."
Freshman shortstop Stephanie Johnson had an outstanding first collegiate season as she led MVNU in nearly every offensive category with a .406 batting average, 67 hits, 12 doubles, five triples, three home runs, 32 runs scored, 32 RBI, and 13 stolen bases. She also played solid defense in the field and was selected as the AMC Freshman of the Year and an NCCAA Honorable Mention All-American.
The Lady Cougars also had arguably one of the best pitching duos in school history as Clark and sophomore Shannon Rachel combined to post a 1.74 earned run average for the season. Clark compiled a 17-10 record with a 1.88 ERA and seven shutouts in her first collegiate season, while Rachel went 12-10 with a 1.59 ERA and three shutouts. Both Clark and Rachel were named to the AMC Second Team.
Tiffany Simpson, a junior second baseman, had a solid season offensively and defensively as she batted .292 with six doubles, a team-high seven triples, 12 RBI, 24 runs scored, and eight stolen bases. She also had a .958 fielding percentage with only 11 errors in 262 chances as she was selected to the AMC First Team.
Angie Smith, a sophomore first baseman, moved across the diamond from third the previous year and shattered the school's putouts record with 420 for the season. She also batted .271 with four doubles, 19 RBI, and 15 runs scored.
Sophomores Jackie Shively, Shara Dyer, and Brittany Stroop were all solid contributers. Shively, an outfielder, batted .269 with 17 RBI, 20 runs scored, and eight stolen bases. Dyer and Stroop split time between catcher and designated player with Dyer batting .262 with nine doubles, 13 RBI, and 10 runs scored, and Stroop batting .250 with nine doubles, 24 RBI, and 12 runs scored.
Sara Schwartz, a sophomore, and Megan Kunkle, a freshman, split time at third base, while freshman Ashley Reeves appeared in 30 games as a pinch runner and scored 11 runs. Junior Monica Riggle also contributed as a pinch hitter with her RBI-single against Malone in the NCCAA East Region playoffs helping the Lady Cougars' secure their victory.
With only two players graduating from this team, the future looks bright for the MVNU women's fastpitch softball program as they will look to build on this year's success when the 2004 season rolls around next spring.