Redemption was sweet this spring for the Missouri State softball team and 22nd-year head coach Holly Hesse. The Bears returned to the upper half of the Missouri Valley Conference standings for the first time in four years, finishing in a tie for fourth place. MSU then mounted a charge through the State Farm MVC Championship in Des Moines, before coming up just a base hit short of advancing to the title game.
While the Bears' renaissance culminated in a series of all-around extraordinary performances at the league meet, the foundation of their turnaround was laid well in advance. In fact, the signs were there all along the way: they were there in a record-shattering offensive display in mid-March; they were there in a pair of gut-wrenching, one-run losses to nationally-ranked Oklahoma State; they were there in a landmark three-game road sweep of three-time defending MVC champ Creighton; they were there in the form of a talented freshman class that contributed from day one; they were there throughout the year with the collective performances of three juniors who etched their names alongside some of the program's greatest players; and they were there when a sophomore stepped in the circle in early May and refused to leave, repeatedly willing her team to victory at the most critical point of the season.
All that after the Valley coaches picked MSU seventh in the league's preseason poll. All that after returning just four regular starters from a 19-25 squad the previous season. All that after the Bears staggered out of the gate with seven straight defeats to surpass the school record for consecutive losses. All that after being outscored 28-5 over a four-game span in March that included a pair of losses to eventual league champion Southern Illinois on the opening weekend of MVC play.
It was quite a comeback for a team that, despite utilizing a lineup that had combined for just 11 career homers entering the season, ultimately tied the Missouri State single-season home run record. Quite a comeback for a team that, despite its 21-32 overall record, extended a long-standing tradition of excellence in the MVC tournament to come within a whisper of taking down the meet's top seed-twice.
Yes, redemption was certainly sweet for the 2010 Bears.
The strong finish for Missouri State probably could not have been predicted based on the Bears' rocky first month of the season. After dropping their last five games of the 2009 season, the Bears went winless in three contests at the Stetson Lead-Off Classic (Feb. 13-14), followed by four straight setbacks at the North Texas Sleep Inn Classic (Feb. 19-20) to surpass the previous school-record dry spell of 10 games, which occurred during the 1989 season. MSU finally stopped its 12-game slide with a 7-3 win over SEMO to open play at the Missouri Breast Cancer Awareness Tournament on March 6. Following a 4-1 loss to Valparaiso in their first game at the Kansas Invitational, the Bears' record stood at 2-11, which represented the worst start to a season on record at Missouri State.
Despite the tough start, the Bears could take consolation in their second win in as many years against Kansas (March 14), and in the fact that six of their first 12 defeats had been one-run decisions.
The Bears showed signs of coming out of their early-season hibernation, turning in their most-productive two-game stretch ever in a doubleheader sweep of IUPUI on March 17. Missouri State scored 29 runs and pounded out six homers, which more than doubled its season total. MSU's 17 runs scored in game two represented its highest single-game total in more than three years.
After dropping four straight contests to Rutgers (March 18) and Southern Illinois (March 19), MSU got a 1-0 shutout from Lauren Supak to squeak past Wichita State (March 24). then posted another big offensive weekend vs. Evansville in their first Valley road trip of the season, March 26-27. Led by junior Christa Gammon's career effort, the Bears battered UE pitching, hitting .362 for the weekend to claim the first of three straight conference series victories by taking two of the three games.
History in the Making
Missouri State came up just short in its second contest of the year against a ranked opponent, falling by a 3-2 score to 15th-ranked Oklahoma State on March 30 in Stillwater. Coupled with a rejuvenated offensive attack, the close call with one of the nation's elite teams propelled the Bears to a historic road sweep over three-time defending conference champion Creighton (April 2-3). MSU beat three-time Valley Pitcher of the Year Tara Oltman, 4-1, in game one, then scratched out a late run to rally past the Jays for a 3-2 win in the second tilt of the series. The Bears finished off their first-ever three-game sweep of CU with a convincing 5-1 decision.
Riding high after the promising road trip to Omaha, the Bears returned to Killian Stadium for a six-game home stand, beginning with a return match-up against Oklahoma State (April 8). Lauren Supak continued a string of strong outings in the circle, holding the Cowgirls to just two hits through the first six innings of a scoreless duel. But OSU's Megan Castle led-off the seventh with what would prove to be a game-clinching homer to left for a 1-0 Cowgirl triumph.
MSU recovered from their second one-run loss to OSU by taking two out of three from Bradley (April 10-11). After splitting a doubleheader to open the series, the Bears rode a standout relief effort from Natalie Rose to earn a 2-1 win to post their third straight MVC series win.
Wichita State threw a roadblock into the Bears' march toward the top of the Valley standings, however, sweeping a doubleheader on April 14 to initiate a four-game losing streak for MSU. The Bears dropped their first two games at Drake (April 17-18) before stopping the skid behind Rose's three-hit shutout of the Bulldogs in a 6-0 victory.
The win provided a temporary respite from a difficult stretch in the schedule for the Bears, but four straight home losses followed, dropping MSU to a season-low 14-games under the .500-mark. Another one-run defeat-this time to perennial NCAA participant Tulsa (April 21)-kicked off a seven-game home stand, before Illinois State would put on an offensive display in a doubleheader sweep on April 25. The Redbirds pounded out 23 hits, including seven long balls, and tied an NCAA record by clubbing four consecutive home runs in their 11-1 win in game two.
After falling to Arkansas (April 28), the Bears righted the ship with three straight wins over Indiana State (May 1-2). Senior right-hander Lauren McGinley wrapped up her MSU home career in style, notching both victories of the Bears' doubleheader sweep on day one. Jenna Schwark's game one grand slam highlighted an 8-7 MSU win in nine innings, and McGinley limited the Sycamores to three runs over 6.1 innings in the nightcap, a 5-3 victory for the Bears. The following day, MSU rallied with five late runs to pull out a 9-5 win.
To close out the regular season, Missouri State traveled to UNI needing a pair of wins to secure a fourth-place finish in conference play. The Panthers seized the upper hand with a 6-2 win in game one, but Ashley Knehans belted an eighth-inning homer in the second contest to make a winner out of Natalie Rose, who went the distance after working the final 5.0 innings of the first game to begin a noteworthy clutch display of fortitude. However, UNI scored three times in the ninth inning of the final game of the set to secure a 4-2, come-from-behind win with Rose once again working a complete game.
The UNI series was just the beginning for the sophomore right-hander, as Rose would complete her first four starts at the MVC Championship (May 13-15) in Des Moines. Entering their 26th conference tournament, the fifth-seeded Bears rode another three-hitter from Rose and a 2-for-3, 2 RBI effort from Schwark to post a 3-0 opening-round win over Evansville. Up next, the Bears plated four unanswered runs against UNI to take the lead for good in a 4-3 victory. Schwark once again came up big, lining a two-run single to left in the third inning to put MSU on top. Freshman Lauren Eisenreich then delivered the deciding blow with an opposite-field, two-run homer in the top of the fourth. Rose came through in the circle yet again, posting her fourth consecutive complete game.
Paired with MVC regular-season champ Southern Illinois in the semifinal round, Rose turned in perhaps her finest effort as a Bear, matching league pitcher of the year Danielle Glosson pitch for pitch through 9 2/3 scoreless innings. Glosson fanned 18 Bears and allowed just one hit in the 10-inning, complete-game effort to tie an MVC Tournament record for strikeouts in a single game. Rose, meanwhile, struck-out nine hitters for the second time in as many days, and the duo's 27 combined K's tied for the 17th-highest single-game total in NCAA Division I history.
The Bears had a chance to push across the go-ahead run in the eighth, putting a runner on third base with one out. But Glosson recorded two straight Bears to work out of the jam and preserve the scoreless tie. Ultimately, SIU's Cristina Trapani ended the affair with a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the Salukis a 2-0 win.
Faced with an elimination contest against Illinois State, the Bears responded with one of their best performances of the season to coast to a 6-1 win. Rose held the Redbird bats in check throughout, allowing just one run on six hits while fanning seven batters. Schwark continued her torrid streak at the plate, going 3-for-4 with her second home run of the tournament and three RBIs, and Stevie Pierce became the second MSU freshman in as many days to come up with a crucial round-tripper. Her pinch-hit, two-run homer in the top of the seventh put the final nail in the Redbirds' coffin, turning a 3-1 game in to a four-run MSU cushion.
The victory over ISU earned the Bears a rematch with SIU for a shot at playing Creighton in the championship game. The Bears got off to a solid start, plating two runs in the top of the first courtesy of an SIU error and a Knehans RBI single to right. But the Salukis responded with back-to-back homers in the bottom half, then took control of the game in the second on Haley Gorman's two-run shot to right for a 4-2 lead.
Rose's heroic streak of 52 consecutive innings pitched for the Bears finally came to an end when Lauren Supak came on in relief in the third. The senior picked up the slack by tossing four scoreless innings to give MSU a chance to rally. Knehans drew the Bears to within 4-3 with her eighth home run of the season in the fourth, and the Bears put a runner in scoring position with one out in the sixth. But Glosson slammed the door again, getting a pair of pop-ups to end the inning before closing out the one-run victory.
Clutch When it Counts
Junior Ashley Knehans had three multi-hit games over MSU's last nine regular season contests following a string of 16 straight contests without a multi-hit performance; she slugged .567 over the same stretch and had five RBIs in her last eight conference games after driving in just four runs in the Bears' first 17 MVC games. She followed that up with a team-high .429 average in MSU's five games at the MVC Championship. With that effort, Knehans upped her career batting mark to .370 (10-of-27) over 10 MVC tournament games.
With its 3-2 showing at this year's MVC Championship, Missouri State extended its league-best win total to 63, which is 11 victories ahead of the No. 2 team (Illinois State) on the list. The Bears' five titles are second only to Creighton's six over the 28-year history of the event.
On the Rise
The Bears fourth place Valley finish represented their best since 2006, when they finished second in the regular-season standings before claiming their fifth MVC Tournament title. In 27 seasons in the Gateway/MVC, Missouri State has finished fifth or better on 15 occasions-including 10 times in the last 15 seasons-and 13 times during head coach Holly Hesse's tenure.
Highlighted by their first-ever three-game sweep of Creighton (April 2-3), the Bears finished the conference season with an 8-5 record on the road. That total represents their best since 2006, when they went 9-1 in MVC road games for the year. The Bears' five-game road win streak (March 27-April 3) in league play was also a program high over the last four seasons. MSU won its last nine Valley road games in 2006, after dropping its first match-up of the season at Wichita State.
Junior infielder Christa Gammon finished the conference season as the Valley's leader in hits with 34 safeties in MVC play en route to earning Second-Team All-MVC honors. Her .395 batting average over 25 league games ranked third in the circuit and marked a .151 point improvement from last year, when she hit just .244 in conference play. The Fairview Heights, Ill., product also tied for the league lead with two triples and rated fourth in runs scored (18) in Valley play this season.
Gammon was red-hot at the plate in MSU's four road games March 24-27, particularly during the Bears' series at Evansville. She reached base in eight of nine at-bats, going 7-for-8 over MSU's first two games with the Purple Aces. The Belleville, Ill., product had three hits in a 5-4 loss on March 26 before turning in a career-best 4-for-4 effort that included three runs driven-in, two doubles and a pair of steals in game one of a doubleheader the following day. Gammon reached base and scored in each of her five plate appearances in the 14-10 MSU win to register the highest single-game run total for a Bear since at least the 1997 season when the school began logging individual game highs.
The Bears clubbed five homers at the MVC Championship to match the Missouri State single-season team record of 34 round-trippers on the year. On an individual level, three Bears posted home run totals that rank among the top nine all-time at MSU. Caitlin Chapin and Ashley Knehans both hit a team-leading eight long balls, while Jenna Schwark ripped seven balls out of the yard.
Chugging Along With Chapin
One of the primary reasons for the Bears' success with the long ball was the emergence of freshman Caitlin Chapin, who shared the team lead with eight home runs. Her second-inning solo shot at UNI on May 9, moved her into a tie for the top spot on the Missouri State freshman home run list, equalling Jessie Smith's (2006) MSU freshman record of eight dingers.
Chapin reached base safely via a hit or walk in 11 consecutive games from March 26-April 11. She drew six walks during the Bears' series win over Bradley (April 10-11) to record a team-high .692 on-base percentage for the week. Over that stretch, Chapin went 13-for-30 (.433) with four homers and 12 RBIs and posted a .541 on-base percentage and a .900 slugging percentage.
Missouri State broke out the bats against Indiana State (May 1-2), scoring 22 runs on 36 hits over its three-game sweep of the Sycamores. That performance represented the first time the Bears had posted three straight double-digit hit totals since Feb. 21-22, 2009, when they pounded out 39 safeties over three games at the North Texas Sleep Inn Classic. It also marked the first time the Bears achieved the feat in MVC play since March 2006, when they topped the 10-hit mark in five straight league outings vs. Indiana State and UNI. That series with UNI (March 25-26, 2006) was also the last time a Missouri State squad topped the 20-run plateau in a three-game Valley series, when it tallied 24 runs in sweeping the Panthers.
Junior Jenna Schwark ranked as the Valley's toughest player to strike-out in 2010, fanning just three times in 25 MVC games and 10 times overall. Her average of just one strikeout every 15.9 at-bats, which ranked 52nd among all Division I players.
There's No 'I' in Team
Missouri State's recovery from an 0-7 start to a tie for fourth in the final Missouri Valley Conference standings was the result of a total team effort, as evidenced by the fact that no Bear was honored as MVC Player or Pitcher of the Week in 2010, despite boasting a lineup that features three of the league's top eight hitters in MVC play. Since 1998 when the Valley expanded its weekly softball awards to include pre-conference games, this year's MSU team is the only league squad to finish fourth or better in the final standings without having a single individual player selected by the Valley's panel of experts for a weekly award.
Supak Shocks the Shocks
With a 1-0 win at Wichita State (March 24), senior righty Lauren Supak continued a stretch of dominance vs. the Shockers. Supak turned in complete-game shutouts in each of her first three career outings against WSU. She blanked the Shockers, 5-0 on March 26, 2009, in Wichita after giving up only six hits, and duplicated the feat on April 15, 2009, registering a 4-0, seven-hitter at Killian Stadium. In all, the Colorado Springs native allowed just 16 hits while fanning eight over her 21.0 straight shutout innings vs. WSU.
Pick a Number
Missouri State head coach Holly Hesse employed 38 unique lineups in the Bears' first 48 contests this season. The Bears utilized 19 different combinations over their first 20 games and until the final weekend of the regular season at UNI, had trotted out the same lineup in back-to-back games just five times in 2010. Against the Panthers, however, the Bears used the same lineup in three straight contests for the first time all season. No spot in the order was safe, as each of the nine slots featured no fewer than three different players in 2010.
Century Club for Schwark, Gammon
Jenna Schwark posted her 100th career hit with a fifth-inning single March 30 against 12th-ranked Oklahoma State to become the 34th Bear to eclipse the century mark for hits. Fellow junior Christa Gammon also topped the century mark for career hits with her 4-for-4 effort at UNI on May 8.
Six Bears posted hit streaks of five games or more this season, including three such stretches turned in by Christa Gammon. Freshman Caitlin Chapin saw her career-long seven-game hit streak come to an end April 8 vs. Oklahoma State. The Ozark, Mo., product hit .458 with four homers and 11 RBIs during the stretch. Jenna Schwark also recorded a seven-game streak, starting the year with hits in the Bears' first six contests.
Additionally, Madison Hargrove (six games), Tyler Porter (six) and Alaina Burkhart (five) also had hit streaks of at least five straight games in 2010.
Coming up Roses
Sophomore right-hander Natalie Rose continued a string of solid performances by allowing just one earned run in 17.0 innings vs. Wichita State and Drake, April 14-18. Rose was the Bears' most-consistent pitcher over a nine-game span (March 30-April 18), going 3-1 with a shutout and a save while posting a microscopic 0.46 ERA. Over the course of that same stretch, Rose held the opposition to a .192 batting average while recording 24 strikeouts against just one walk. She was successful thanks in large part to her command, producing a stretch of 33 1/3 innings in which she issued just one base on balls. That followed a stretch of 55.0 innings to start the season in which she handed out 21 walks while compiling a 1-7 record and 4.45 ERA.
The Bears turned in their most-productive two-game stretch ever March 17, scoring 29 runs and pounding six homers in a doubleheader sweep of IUPUI. In that two-game period alone, MSU more than doubled its season home run total and upped its team batting average from .240 to .276. MSU's 17 runs scored in game two represented its highest single-game total since February 2007, when it defeated Arkansas-Pine Bluff by a 20-4 score.