LACEY — It’s final exams week at Saint Martin’s University. Few students remain on campus, and graduation is Saturday at Marcus Pavilion.
Four seniors on the Saints’ softball team — Joslyn Eugenio, Madi Davis, Taylor Bakos and Aubree Pocklington — will graduate with bachelor’s degrees. But all four will miss walking with their classmates at the 2 p.m. ceremony. Participating in the softball program’s first NCAA tournament is their priority.
That’s just fine, they say, because they don’t want to let their teammates down.
“It’s so much bigger to be able to play in a (national) tournament,” said Davis, SMU’s left fielder from Bothell. “None of us have ever experienced that. To build something with 16 other girls and know it’s something you made on your own, there’s no greater feeling.”
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Today, the No. 17-ranked Saints (39-14) will play in their first NCAA tournament game as SMU’s third program to qualify for the NCAA postseason, joining women’s basketball (2004-05, ’07-08) and men’s golf (most recently in 2012).
The Saints, one of 64 teams in the Division II tournament, will open West Region play against Grand Canyon (39-17) at 1:30 p.m. today in Arcata, Calif. The winner of the three-day West 1 Regional advances to the West Super Regional, equivalent to reaching a Sweet 16.
SMU’s why-not-us mentality led to an upset win over then-No. 9-ranked Humboldt State, which is in the same subregional as the Saints, then to a national ranking and championships of both the Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament.
All of this after SMU had nine wins in 2011.
So, how does a program go from 9-30 to a year full of historic firsts, including 39 wins and a national tournament appearance, just two seasons later?
It starts with accountability and a new level of confidence to reach a common goal.
“We’re striving for the same thing and not striving for individual success,” Eugenio said. “What we strive for is to be excellent every game.”
Eugenio, a native of Kapolei, Hawaii, is the only senior who has been in the program all four years. Davis (Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.), Bakos (Columbia Basin College in Pasco) and Pocklington (Pacific Lutheran) are transfers.
Eugenio has seen the ins and outs, a coaching change, the good, the bad — and what has been the best season in the program’s 21-year history. She said the mindset of players has changed in a short time.
“Two years ago,” she said, “we would be down two runs, and the game was over.”
Against winless Northwest Nazarene on April 27, the Saints trailed by three runs entering the bottom of the seventh. They scored four runs in the inning to win, 5-4.
PATHWAYS TO SUCCESS
Rick and Leanne Noren know what it takes to win.
SMU’s husband-and-wife coaching tandem, hired weeks before the 2011 season began, spent 14 seasons at Pacific Lutheran and went to the postseason – NAIA or NCAA Division III tournaments – seven times. One of head coach Rick Noren’s teams had a losing season, finishing a game below .500 (17-18).
Saint Martin’s was a new challenge. The program never had a winning season, let alone finished with more than 21 victories in a year. Individual talent was there in 2011, Rick Noren said, but players “had their own direction.” SMU struggled through a single-digit win season for the third time in five seasons.
“That was more difficult than losing a game,” Noren said.
In two seasons, the Saints have won 72 games. Their 33 wins in 2012 was the largest win-loss turnaround in Division II. This spring, they compiled a 16-2 mark at home and went 18-6 in GNAC play, winning the regular-season title on Senior Weekend against Northwest Nazarene and Central Washington. SMU led the conference in team batting average (.311) and team earned-run average (2.55), and had three of the top four individual batting averages — sophomore Sam Munger (first, .434), Eugenio (second, .400) and Lacey McGladrey (fourth, .389).
Munger (2.53 ERA, 105 strikeouts) earned GNAC pitcher of the year honors, and McGladrey (70 hits, 60 runs scored), a junior second baseman, was named GNAC player of the year. They were among nine Saints players recognized by the conference. Noren earned his second consecutive coach of the year honor.
Last month’s Tournament of Champions in Turlock, Calif., was a turning point in the Saints’ season. They advanced to the title game after upsetting Humboldt State, proving to themselves they can play — and beat — high-quality teams. The next week, the Saints were ranked for the first time in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Division II poll.
“That was huge for us,” said Pocklington, SMU’s starting catcher.
RALLYING A CAMPUS
The excitement of the Saints’ success has stretched across the 1,500-student campus.
Halee Hernandez, a sophomore mathematics major and a setter on the volleyball team, said the players receive constant recognition wherever they go on campus. Home-game attendance has spiked, she said, and students are following the Saints via email and social media.
“It’s a pretty big thing for Saint Martin’s, considering it’s rare for Saint Martin’s to go this far,” Hernandez said. “We’re all pretty proud of them.”
Bakos, a former Kennewick High School pitcher with a 15-7 record, thinks there’s a lot more season to go, and that starts with a big postseason run.
“It’s definitely not the end for us,” she said. “School is going to end, but the season is going to keep going.”
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 email@example.com/southsoundsports