Talk about a national championship began months before the softball season began.
“It started in the fall,” catcher Diane Miller said. “Our goal was to win a national championship. We had been close. A lot of us had been to the Final Four our first year in Division II (1990, finishing fourth). We all knew we had something special. As time went on, we recognized if we do this right and stick together, we can do this.”
And once the season started, a 7-1 record against strong competition during a spring break trip to Florida gave the team confidence and caught the attention of everybody at the tournament.
“We all got that vibe when we were down in Florida,” pitcher Andrea Clarke Keene said. “We really started clicking and playing really well.
“It got to be a joke with all of us. People there started saying ‘Who is that green team and where are they from?’ We had T-shirts made that said that.”
That green team was Missouri Southern, and in 1992 the Lions dominated the MIAA Postseason Tournament, outscoring four opponents 25-2, and then beat Nebraska-Omaha once and Augustana twice to win the regional tournament on their home field. That gave them a spot in the NCAA Division II national tournament in Shawnee, Kansas.
“We had everything – pitching, hitting, defense,” Miller said. “We showed up at the ball park and said ‘let’s do this in five (innings) so we can go eat.’ When we got to the national tournament, we needed to change our mantra, but that’s how we prepared for every game.”
Twenty-eight years ago today – May 15, 1992 – the Lions opened play in the four-team national tournament.
“Twenty-eight years? Man, I’m old,” coach Pat Lipira said. “I don’t care how many years go by, there are still moments and plays you never forget. And you still smile. I can’t pass the exit at Shawnee without thinking about it. I can still visualize everything so clearly.
“Seeing somebody on the team causes you to reminisce a little bit. I still see Leah (Ingram) here in Joplin. I keep up with players on Facebook. They have their own families now and have kids playing. Man, 28 years.”
The No. 2-ranked Lions battled Saginaw Valley State in their first game. Saginaw Valley had a hard-throwing pitcher, but the Lions jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning and coasted to an 8-1 victory – the first victory by an MIAA team in eight appearances in the national semifinals.
The Lions rapped 13 hits, including three by Stacy Harter and two apiece by Katrina Marshall, Miller, Ingram and Carrie Carter.
Ingram’s bases-loaded double to left-center field headlined the first-inning spree, and she later scored on Carter’s bunt single.
That was more than enough runs for Keene, who pitched a three-hitter with two strikeouts and one walk. She had a one-hiter until two outs in the ninth when an infield hit and double spoiled her shutout bid.
“When we get the lead early on, that makes me at ease a little better,” Keene said. “We all had each other’s back … great defense, great offense. I knew if I could put it in there and they hit it, our defense would take care of it.”
“Any time you get the first run across, it gives you a sigh of relief,” Miller said. “We had Andy, and Andy threw ground balls. We didn’t need a lot of runs, and if we got two or three runs, that was a win for sure. It was over.”
The Lions scored their final four runs on Renee Weih’s RBI double in the third, Harter’s RBI single in the sixth and Carter’s two-run triple in the seventh.
“A lot of times Coach Lipira was so motivating,” Keene said. “She gave such great talks and got us prepared. Sure we were all nervous, but we knew we had to get the first one under our belt. We went to work and played as a team.”
“I remember us thinking we should beat this team,” Miller said. “We knew it would get harder after this game.”
And did it ever.