By Justin Maskus
Special to The Globe
After nearly three years of planning, development and construction, the Missouri Southern softball complex was completed with the addition of Gene Wild Field 14 years ago.
The new field, as well as a press box and concession stand to serve both fields in the complex, opened in the fall of 1998.
Wild Field joined Lea Kungle Field, a facility that had been in place since 1986, to give Missouri Southern one of the best softball facilities in not only the MIAA, but all of Division II. The Lions could now host tournaments on their campus each spring, and it also meant Southern was now in compliance with NCAA rules to make the complex suitable for hosting NCAA postseason events (the distance of the outfield fence was too far from home plate).
“Kungle Field did not meet NCAA specs to host postseason games,” said MSSU Vice President for Academic Affairs and former Southern coach Dr. Pat Lipira. “When we hosted regionals, we had to put up a temporary fence. Building Wild Field put us in compliance and it also allowed us to host tournaments on campus. Joplin is a popular spot for March tournaments each year.”
The Lions had utilized the Four Seasons Sports Complex — about two miles from campus — for their tournaments prior to the addition to Wild Field.
“It’s always nice to be able to show recruits that field,” she said. “I spent six seasons roaming around before we found a permanent home, playing at Ewert Park, Webb City Park, Four Seasons and more. It was very inconvenient transporting equipment every day, but I truly believe winning and happy graduates play an even bigger role in the success of a program.”
Current Lions coach Bill Gray loves the advantage the facility gives his program.
“There are still programs that do not have fields on campus and having two is almost unheard of at the Division II level,” he said. “It allows us the luxury of having larger tournaments on campus and bringing more teams to the community. Being able to rest one field throughout the season and let the grass get healthy or do some dirt work and still be able to practice is a huge advantage.”
And win they did. Starting in 2000, Southern moved in to Wild Field and in 11 seasons on that field, the Lions went 122-82, including an impressive 41-2 in the first two years. Prior to that season, Southern played from 1986-1999 at Kungle Field and had a 21-game winning streak from April 25, 1990 to March 1, 1992. The streak included a perfect 16-0 season in 1991, one of two perfect home records at MSSU along with 15-0 in 1995. Since moving on campus, the Lions have posted a 282-116 record at home.
In the fall of 2010, new construction on the complex began to improve the look of Kungle Field. New brick dugouts were added with a storage room attached to the home dugout, five 10 feet-by-10 feet hitting stations were added, and the outfield fences were moved in to meet NCAA requirements. The Lions moved their home games back to Kungle field in the spring of 2011 and have played there since, going 17-8 at home in 2011.
“We moved back to Kungle Field for two reasons, really three,” Gray said. “The first two are more logistics. Wild Field drains everything to one corner and the water sets, so it takes a long time to dry and would sometimes make it unplayable when the other field was more reliable. Secondly, the batting cage is located at Kungle and to work on hitting, we had to haul everything from one end to the other and it didn’t make a lot of sense. But more importantly, most of the history that has been made on the softball field at Southern has happened on Kungle Field.
“The conference, regional and national championships were won when we played on that field, and to have our team on the field where the memories were made will hopefully inspire the current teams and we can make our own memories.”
The majority of the work in both projects was done with construction donated by the Missouri Army National Guard, 203rd Engineer Battalion .
Former athletics director Sallie Beard played a major role in the movement of softball on campus at Southern.
“She got the initial donation from the Kungle family to build our first field on campus,” Lipira said. “I was more involved with the building of the second field, but Sallie was instrumental in bringing the softball program on campus.”
Lea Kungle Field was named in honor of the wife of Arthur Kungle, a former Southern regent from 1964-90. Wild Field was named after Gene Wild, who served on the Foundation Board at Missouri Southern for many years.
Justin Maskus is the sports information director at Missouri Southern.