By Greg Jackson
It was a sunny Friday afternoon on the campus of Central Methodist University, but the sidewalks and classrooms were empty. It was the first week of summer vacation and all of the students had returned home for the break.
Well, almost everyone.
The CMU softball team was holding its second practice session since winning the Heart of America Athletic Conference Tournament. The win earned the Lady Eagles an automatic bid to this week’s NAIA Tournament, which begins with pool play on Thursday.
The players were all wearing the same black CMU softball T-shirt, reading “SBB 2012: Going all out.” The shirts were very reflective of their practice style.
Batters were pounding out base hit after base hit after base hit. Runners were taking the extra base on the basepaths. Fielders were leaping for line drives that were hit a few feet over their heads.
It looked more like an actual game than it did a practice.
But that’s the story of the Lady Eagles, currently ranked No. 20 in the NAIA. They looked like a team that consistently plays in the NAIA Tournament year after year, not like one that hasn’t been there since 1981.
For a team that has finished runner-up in the HAAC Tournament in each of the previous three seasons, they know one thing. Their time is now.
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CMU enters the NAIA Tournament as one of the nation’s hottest teams, winning 14 of the past 15 games. The Lady Eagles have only lost three games since March 15.
It was a nice touch to win the HAAC regular-season title, but a conference tournament championship was more meaningful. It was something that had eluded the Lady Eagles in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
“Maybe it’s been with me the last two or three years, but having that sense of the monkey on my back — or whatever analogy you want to use — has been there,” CMU softball head coach Pat Reardon said. “The girls were happy for me, but I’m also glad for the girls, especially the seniors. They have been with me at every one of those conference tournament finals.”
For Reardon’s three seniors — Kelsey Johnley, Rebecca Lipsey and Kayla Yount — winning a conference tournament championship was worth missing out on walking across the stage at graduation. CMU’s commencement ceremony was taking place at the same time as the Lady Eagles’ championship game.
But before the team left for the tournament in Overland Park, Kan., the three seniors took pictures together in their caps and gowns as a consolation.
“We all knew from the beginning of the year, if softball goes to the conference tournament, we’re not going to walk,” Johnley said. “The whole time, we were like, ‘If we’re not going to walk, then we’re going to win.’ The day we won, all three of us said that holding the championship banner was a million times better than walking across the stage at graduation.”
The three seniors were among the nine CMU softball to earn All-Conference honors, which were announced followed the conclusion of the conference tournament. Five players were named to the first team, including Pitcher of the Year Aubrey Utley and Freshman of the Year Michele Rupard. The other three first-team spots went to the seniors.
Yount, who plays first base for the Lady Eagles and even served as an assistant coach with the New Franklin softball team this past fall, leads CMU’s offense with a .400 batting average, 46 RBIs, 14 doubles and eight home runs. When teammate Bri Ford suffered a season-ending knee injury on April 1, a lot of the offensive power was put on Yount’s shoulders.
“As soon as she went down, I was one of the most distraught people that day,” Yount said. “We were the 3-4 hitters and we were a good punch. I told her last weekend that she really pushed me to do a lot of things this year and I give her a lot of credit for how I performed.”
With Utley, an All-American pitcher, taking a lot of the headlines with a 25-5 record this season, not much attention has been given to Lipsey, her battery mate. The senior catcher has only made one error in 239 chances and is batting .331 this spring.
Reardon told his catcher that, although the conference doesn’t offer a Catcher of the Year award, Lipsey would have won the honor this year, hands down.
“I love when she strikes out batters on a changeup,” Lipsey said of Utley’s pitching. “They just sit there and stare at it and wonder, ‘What just happened?’ She does really well and if one pitch isn’t working, we find that other pitch that is going to shut them down. We just keep things mixed up.”
For Johnley, who has split time between second base and left field, a lot of attention was focused on her at the HAAC Tournament. In the championship, she stole her 61st career base, breaking the school record. Now any stolen base she can get at the NAIA Tournament will only add to her record.
“Kelsey is an extreme competitor, probably one of the better athletes I’ve ever coached,” Reardon said. “The speed, the strength and the weight room are all things that she brings (to the team). She has a very loose attitude, but the girls really respect her. When it’s time to get down to business, she can really turn it on.”
In addition, Reardon was named the HAAC Coach of the Year for the fourth time in five years. On March 27, Reardon won his 500th career softball game with the Lady Eagles. He said the 19 years are starting to flow together and have had their ups and downs.
“More than half of my life has been spent on this campus,” Reardon said. “Some of the first years just weren’t very pretty. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I fell in love with it.”
This won’t be the first time this season CMU has played softball at Gulf Shores, Ala. During the school’s spring break, the Lady Eagles played six games in the Gulf Coast Invitational, where they played teams like Mobile, Shorter and Thomas, three schools that also qualified for the NAIA Tournament.
“We went to the tournament in Gulf Shores on purpose,” Reardon said. “I know for the last couple of years, it has been Top 25 team after Top 25 team that we see.”
And while the Lady Eagles will get down to business Thursday, the seniors are ready to enjoy success following season after season of just missing out on the NAIA Tournament.
“Our goal was to get there,” Yount said. “Now everything else is a bonus and everyone is ready to go down there and have some fun and play some softball. We’re going to go out there and enjoy ourselves on last time.”