The 10 national championship team banners in St. Thomas’ Schoenecker Arena will have a new neighbor – make room for No. 11 with softball.
Sophomore Janet Nagle pitched a one-hit shutout to lead St. Thomas to its first NCAA Division III softball championship with a 2-0 victory on May 17 over Moravian (Pa.). The shutout victory capped a 4-0 week in Salem, Va., and a 10-0 postseason run since April 30.
Sophomore Nikki Conway and junior Michelle Wong had clutch, two-out, RBI singles in the fifth inning to let the Tommies (46-4) cap a storybook season. St. Thomas won its 41st consecutive game – a Division III record and the second- longest winning streak in any NCAA softball division.
“It was just a great team effort, tonight and all season,” said coach John Tschida. “A lot of players stepped up, just like they have all year. We have six seniors who didn’t all get to make the on-field contributions, but they made a huge impact with their work ethic and attitudes. We really focused on the task. It’s the World Series. It’s a great opportunity to show what you have.”
The Tommies’ first national softball title was also the school’s 11th overall national team championship. The Tommies join a select group of institutions to win NCAA titles in six different sports. UST men’s and women’s cross-country, women’s basketball, men’s indoor track and baseball previously had won gold.
Nagle struck out four in the final game and benefited from diving catches by centerfielder Kristi Huegel in the third inning and Mandy Bowlby in the fourth inning.
“We’re known as more of a hitting team,” Nagle said, “but as you saw out there tonight we had some amazing step-ups by players with diving catches and people making big plays.”
“Everyone on our team, one through nine, can hit the ball,” Conway said. “It was only a matter of time before we broke through tonight.”
Nagle, Conway, senior Kaja Martinson and freshman Carrie Embree made the all-tournament team.
It was the first time that any of them had been named All Americans, but Nikki Conway, Janet Nagle and Michelle Wong credit a great team effort for a NCAA championship – St. Thomas was the best of 350 teams in Division III.
Celebrations after the national championship on May 17 had to wait until the team returned from Salem, Va. “Well, we did have a steak dinner,” pitcher Nagle said, “but then we studied for final exams which were scheduled for the next three days.”
Then the fun started – an all-campus reception on May 21 and throwing out the first ball at Saints and Twins games that weekend. “The Twins showed a clip of our big celebration, so we got lots of applause,” Conway said.
Players also were pleased at the congratulations from their professors and other students. “More people noticed than we expected, since softball usually does not get much attention on campus. Winning helps. We did get about 1,000 fans at the regional championships in Pella, Iowa, and about 300 made it to Salem, so that was great,” Nagle said.
Nagle, a sophomore psychology major who graduated from Minnetonka High School, won her 31st consecutive start in the championship. She admits her best pitch is a fast “rise ball” and “it’s all about location,” but credits defense for the team’s success.
Wong, a health promotion-science emphasis major from Hopkins High School who played baseball before switching to softball in eighth grade, set a St. Thomas record of 70 hits in a season. A shortstop, she is known for her ability to place hits anywhere in the field.
Conway, a sophomore social science major who graduated from Cretin-Derham Hall, broke her own school record by scoring 56 runs in 50 games. A catcher, she has a strong arm but says coach John Tschida selected pitches.
“John scouts every team and knows where the holes are in their batters’ swings, so he calls every pitch from the bench,” she said. “He works hard. He just knows more than a lot of other coaches.”
Nagle, Conway and Wong say they came to St. Thomas for two things – good academics and a winning program. “The team averages practices of three hours a day, six days a week,” Tschida said, “does strength conditioning in the off-season, and plays in a summer college league. We do a lot of recruiting and attract very talented players who work hard and that’s why we win.” Tschida celebrated coaching his second national champion team, having won in 2000 with St. Mary’s, the university he graduated from in 1990.
And he still plays, pitching for the Fargo, N.D., Knights, one of the top men’s teams in the International Softball Congress that plays all over the United States.
Tschida and the team agree the real secret to success is “love of the game and of competition.” However, Tschida smiles when asked the secret of good coaching and admits he has done graduate work in one of his favorite fields – sports psychology.
Tschida and assistant coaches Tim Gormley, Brad Horstman, Dana Ballard and Jen Meyer were chosen 2004 Speedline/Division III National Coaching Staff of the Year by the National Fastpitch Coaches’ Association.