Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON-There the four of them sat, in the weight room that had been temporarily converted into the setting for the Belton Regional’s postgame press conferences.
The quartet of Crusaders; head coach Melissa Mojica, seniors Jessica Miller and Lexi Harris, and freshman Taylor Henken, having seen their historic season ended in a narrow 3-2 loss to No. 2-ranked Berry minutes earlier, attempted to put into words a bittersweet feeling that cannot fully be explained. A feeling of finality that comes with the conclusion of a season as successful as this one was.
They each witnessed the pivotal NCAA Tournament Regional Final on Saturday afternoon from a different viewpoint; Miller as a pinch-hitter in the seventh, Harris from the dugout, sidelined by an injury suffered on Friday, and Henken as a freshman who had been pressed into action with Harris’ absence in the lineup.
It was the perfect symbolism for what allowed UMHB softball’s success to be so plentiful–on and off the field–in a spring that spanned 49 games. Everyone had a role to play, and though the roles may have varied, each provided value that led to the Cru’s 35 wins, which tied a program high.
“We had every single player bought into the program,” Mojica said. “Every kid was working for someone else next to them. That’s what made the team so successful.”
That produced a team that did not back down against one of the nation’s best in Berry College, and did not waver in the face of a seventh-inning rally in game one, as Berry began cutting away at what was a comfortable 8-2 lead for UMHB.
The Vikings got all the way within a run before Shelby Daniel’s bases-loaded flyout ended Berry’s hopes of completing their comeback, and gave UMHB the victory.
“We made several adjustments at the plate,” Mojica said of UMHB’s improvement from Friday against Berry to Saturday. “We saw several pitchers throughout Berry’s lineup, and we kept adjusting and producing hits, which gave us a chance to win. I was very happy with this game, and how well the players executed those things.”
And in game two, all seven innings were just as competitive. Berry never got too far ahead, going up 2-0 on Morgan Frye’s third-inning home run, before UMHB scored the game’s next two runs in the fourth, the latter coming on an RBI single from Blakely Niles.
Berry broke through with a single to left field in the seventh, and though Bailey Eggleston’s rocket of a throw from left field hit its mark at home plate, Katie Parker rounded third and arrived at the plate a second before the throw. Safe. Berry, 3, UMHB, 2.
The Cru put runners on first and second with no outs–it was Miller’s pinch-hit single to left field that got the momentum rolling again. But back-to-back plays from Berry’s infield kept UMHB from getting anyone to third, much less across the plate. A double play turned by Parker, the Berry third baseman, on a well-fielded ground ball ended not only the game, but the season, for UMHB in devastating fashion. Berry, meanwhile, advanced to play Belhaven in the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament next week.
“I love knowing that we’re confident in playing our game and making the plays behind our pitchers,” Berry head coach Jessica Strong said. “We didn’t try to do anything too different. We just stuck to the plan. The ball ended up in our gloves and we executed.”
As the Crusaders, many with tears in their eyes, walked towards home plate for the final postgame prayer of the 2023 season, the home crowd rose to its feet. One by one, people stood and began clapping. This was a special group, one that had done things never before don in the UMHB softball program. They broke the record for hits in a season, became the first team to host an NCAA regional, and took down a pair of Top 10 teams in Berry and ETBU.
There wasn’t a doubt that this group that fought elimination for four straight games a week prior in the ASC Tournament, and came back in the NCAA Tournament to win twice with elimination as the alternative, had something special, something unique.
And if any doubt remained about that fact, Miller erased it with a completely genuine comment about halfway through the press conference that brought things into perspective. This team played with a greater purpose, and through that, reached new heights.
“We really grew as a team in our faith this year,” Miller said. “We started doing prayers before games. We do the Lord’s Prayer, and we also ended up doing our own little thing of saying our own prayers before every game. I think that’s made a world of difference of feeling God’s presence with us. We’ve been feeling it every single game.”
The words themselves are powerful, and the meaning behind the words stands out. Not all of their “wins” came on the field. Plenty was accomplished that will not show up in the program record book or on the Cru’s 35-14 record in the years to come. Yet, it was all important to this group. They did grow in their faith. They took great pride in their work ethic. They led postgame prayers, shoulder-to-shoulder with their opponents. They finished the fall with a 3.68 GPA, the highest of any team at UMHB.
“After the season is over, that’s the most important thing,” Mojica said. “Once you catch your breath, you realize that we coach amazing human beings. The faith that these kids have [is incredible]. They serve each other. They serve God. They go above and beyond in everything they do. That went over to the field and that’s why we were able to be successful.”
Some may consider bringing up aspects of a team unrelated to the physical stats of its on-field performance as being irrelevant, or perhaps a way to distract from the fact that the result of the game itself was a loss. But honestly, quite the opposite seems true.
The stats are certainly there for UMHB softball, but to see the full picture of a team, it is necessary to look beyond what is on the surface. Because the difference between good and great teams often lies between the lines of a box score, and inside the heart that pushes a group of individuals to a place of cohesion in which the moment never seems too big.
“For me, it’s being with a great group of girls,” Harris said, when asked about remembering this senior season. “We have people who can come off the bench and play, and people who have the same faith. It brings us all together. It made it so memorable.”
The Crusaders more than proved they belonged in the NCAA Tournament after receiving one of the 18 at-large bids and the on-field play proved superb. After dealing with nerves in Friday’s 2-1 loss to Berry, UMHB came back to Dee Dillon Field on Saturday morning with a clear mission in mind.
Grason Long, who set the UMHB single-season record for strikeouts, said Friday evening that the Crusaders “work well when we’re down.” The Cru backed up that fact immediately in the first inning of game one, as Taylor Holman’s two-run home run cleared the fence in left-center field with several feet to spare. Crofut’s two-run homer in the fifth widened the lead to 5-2. They were not going to leave anything to chance, especially in a must-win setting.
“Yesterday, when we played Berry, we were a little nervous,” Mojica said. “Then after the game, [we said]. ‘We can do it. We can beat them. We’re right there.’ The girls came in ready to play today.”
Henken also scored on Crofut’s homer, and overall, handled the pressure of being pressed into a starting role with exceptional maturity. The true freshman had a hit in each of Saturday’s duels with the Vikings, and made a number of catches in center field. It was evidence that the depth Mojica spoke of throughout the season was indeed very much present on the UMHB roster.
“We had a strong group of starters, and I have a strong bench I can go to,” Mojica added. “Lexi gets hurt yesterday, Taylor Henken goes in and does a fabulous job today. That’s in all positions that we have.”
It certainly gives reason for optimism for the future. The senior class that is departing accomplished plenty during their careers, and in this season alone. But what they also did was set the bar high for those returning in 2024, and the incoming recruiting classes that will follow in the years to come. This team set a high standard; one that will not be lowered any time soon.
“It feels really assuring to know that this team is going in the right direction for the future,” Miller said. “We know that is going to attract a lot of people to come to UMHB, just because we do have this good of a softball program going for us.
“Even though I’m exiting the softball field to graduate, it makes me feel pretty good that this is going to continue and roll on in the future.”