When the Portland State softball team started the season out by losing its first five games, I admit that I wrote the team off. After all, it was to be expected, in a way. The team had just lost head coach Teri Mariani after 29 seasons at the helm (she’s the interim AD now) and a rebuilding year was to be expected.
Except that the Vikings didn’t have a rebuilding year. They had their finest season ever at the Division I level, and the fact that it culminated in a quick exit from the NCAA Regional tourney at Oregon State does little to diminish their accomplishments.
If the softball team’s 2006 campaign should be remembered for anything, it’s that they proved that little old Portland State and their beleaguered athletics program can compete with the elite schools across the nation.
The Vikings took on No. 19 Baylor and hung with the Lady Bears in both games, which the Viks lost by a combined three runs. In each game it took Baylor the full seven innings to break Portland State.
With most of their talent returning next season, there is no reason to think that PSU shouldn’t be punching another ticket to the Regional tourney for a long time to come. Case in point: sophomore pitcher and super slugger Mandy Hill, who just completed arguably the finest season for a softball player in many years.
Hill tied a Portland State record by notching her 24th win over Nevada Saturday and finished the season 24-7 with a 1.97 ERA and 170 strikeouts. Hill also led the team in batting average at .322 with 12 homers and 48 RBI.
However, the Vikings are losing three strong seniors next year, including 14-game winner Michelle Hext, who suffered a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Baylor on Saturday to end the Vikings’ tourney run. Hext finished the year 14-12 with a 1.82 ERA and 148 Ks.
The Vikings will also miss senior catcher Jennie Schollenberger and shortstop Lacey Gorman. Schollenberger usually didn’t bat but provided excellent defense behind the plate and veteran leadership for her young star pitcher.
Gorman was part of a very effective Vikings defense and also contributed mightily at the plate, where she hit .284 with eight home runs and 26 RBIs. Gorman was also 11/11 on stolen base attempts.
Seniors aside, what made this team special? In a down year for Portland State athletics, the softball team did what only the track team has done: go to an NCAA tourney. Head coach Amy Hayes said Friday after Baylor won on a walk-off homer by Chelsi Lake that her team didn’t want to be the Cinderella team that would simply be satisfied with making an appearance in the Big Dance.
This program wanted more and had the belief that they belonged in the company of ranked teams, namely No. 8 Oregon State, No. 19 Baylor and Nevada and could beat any of those teams on any given day. It is that killer instinct that PSU athletic programs need to truly compete.
There is no aw-shucks attitude here, just a healthy respect for the other teams and a belief that little old Portland State could (and should) kick ass on a major stage. This year Baylor was the better team. Next year, don’t be surprised if it’s the Vikings who end up on top.