The No. 6 TWU Pioneers have been winning so much lately that it was hard for the players to remember the last time something didn’t go their way.
After their last loss — a 2-1, nine-inning decision in the final regular-season series against Lone Star Conference powerhouse West Texas A&M — a coaching opportunity arose for Richie Bruister and a players meeting launched the Pioneers into a 10-game winning streak.
“They met after the game, after the loss,” Bruister said. “They were saying, ‘I should have done this. I should have got this hit.’ Everybody took the blame instead of one person taking the fault. They came together as a team at that point and the leadership took off.”
In the second game of the series, Bruister made a change to the team’s hitting approach when one player was displeased with it and introduced negative energy to the dugout. Bruister knew then that his team needed a change of attitude.
“I brought the team over together and I said, ‘If we continue to have this negative talk, we will lose,’” Bruister said. “‘This negativity will not get us to what you deserve and what you’ve earned.’ You saw that next inning, we scored two or three runs and the attitude changed. Thank goodness it worked. [Those moments] don’t always work, but this one did. They remembered that, and they’ve stayed that way.”
The Pioneers won that game 5-1 against the No. 7 Lady Buffs and the series finale 3-2 to claim their first LSC championship. Since then, the Pioneers have built their confidence game by game and pitch by pitch.
“We gain more confidence with each win as a team and as a pitching staff,” conference MVP Katie Hines said. “We know we can do it, but it’s that much more of a buildup for us after each win. We’ve showed it again, over and over, so I think that confidence will help us.”
Hines and the Pioneers will have their hands full in the NCAA Division II tournament with the nation’s top home run-hitting team, No. 5 Humboldt State (51-12), which is just one homer shy of 112 — the single-season record.
“We know it’s not going to be easy going into this tournament in general, but I think we’re prepared for it with our pitching and our defense,” Hines said. “Our offense can definitely hang with them. They might have all those home runs, but home runs don’t win ballgames.”
The Pioneers are no slugging slouches either, as they are seventh in the nation with 75 home runs while ranking 20th in runs per game at 6.43. The Lumberjacks are more dependent on the long ball, as they average just over six runs per game.
Leading the Jacks’ offense is sophomore Chrissy Stalf, who is tops in the nation with 27 homers, but Hines is just two back with 25.
Hines, who has delivered clutch hits all season for TWU, doesn’t focus on the statistics.
“She just goes out there and plays the game,” Bruister said. “She doesn’t care about her stats or any of that stuff. She doesn’t play for the awards; she just plays because she loves the game. That’s what makes her special and that’s what makes her fun to coach.”
With Hines surrounded by talent in practice every day and given the competition in the LSC this season, she takes a steady approach when it comes to facing Stalf and the Lumberjacks.
“I feel like I’ve been facing people of my talent all season,” Hines said. “I’ve been playing excellent players and I play with excellent players. I’m ready to play humble and do well against them.”
The Lumberjacks also have freshman pitcher Katie Obbema (27-3), but the Pioneers have the trio of Hines, Larisa Garcia and Brandie Lander, who leads the team with a 22-6 record and whose three-hit shutout Saturday against St. Edward’s clinched the trip to nationals.
The Pioneers boast a team ERA of 2.35, while the Lumberjacks have a 2.61 ERA.
Bruister likened the matchup to those in the Rocky movies.
“What I like to say to our girls is it’s like a heavyweight title match” Bruister said. “It’s going to be blow for blow. It’s kind of like one of the old Rockys, just pounding each other back and forth, and at the end of the seventh inning we’ll look up to the scoreboard and see who has won.”
When the Pioneers take the field tonight at the James I. Moyer Complex in Salem, Va., they know what type of fight is in store for them. In addition to what goes on between the white chalk lines, Bruister said the life experience the players gain can’t be quantified.
“What you’re learning from sports, you can’t get in the classroom,” Bruister said. “Companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in people to teach their employees how to be team players. Our players are getting that for free. You can’t read that in a book. You have to actually experience it. These kids are getting a priceless education on the softball field.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.
NCAA Div. II Tournament
AT THE JAMES I. MOYER COMPLEX
Game 1: Central Oklahoma (47-11) vs. Armstrong (42-8-1), 11 a.m.
Game 2: Molloy (52-12) vs. Valdosta St. (46-11), 1:30 p.m.
Game 3: Grand Valley State (44-7) vs. Kutztown (34-21), 4 p.m.
Game 4: TWU (51-12) vs. Humboldt State (51-12), 6:30 p.m.
Game 5: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 3 p.m.
Game 6: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 5:30 p.m.
Game 7: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 11 a.m.
Game 8: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1:30 p.m.
Game 9: Winner Game 7 vs. Loser Game 6, 4 p.m.
Game 10: Winner Game 8 vs. Loser Game 5, 6:30 p.m.
Game 11: Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 9, 11 a.m. (If the winner of Game 9 wins Game 11, Game 13 will be played at 4 p.m.
Game 12: Winner Game 6 vs. Winner Game 10, 1:30 p.m. (If the winner of Game 10 wins Game 12, Game 14 will be played at 6:30 p.m.)
If only one if necessary game is needed, it will be played at 5 p.m.
Championship game, 11 a.m.