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A Season to Remember

The IUP softball team brought opponents to their knees and Ruth Podbielski to tears en route to the greatest season in school history.

The Crimson Hawks capped a spring of unprecedented achievement—the program’s first Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and NCAA Division II Atlantic Region championships, first top-ten national ranking, and a 38-8 record that established a school mark for winning percentage (.826)—by advancing to the College World Series, a phenomenal feat given that, only two years before, IUP struggled just to reach .500.

“I’ll remember this season for the rest of my life,” said junior first baseman Megan McCormick, who led the Hawks in batting average (.397), home runs (7), and RBIs (53). “Other teams down the line might beat our records and they might make the World Series, but we were the first to go there. No one can take that away from us.”

Applauding the starting lineup

Coach Bill Graham and the women’s softball team applauded the starting lineup before an Atlantic Region I tournament game in May at Podbielski Field. (Keith Boyer)

The Hawks’ giddy playoff run ended abruptly—IUP went 0-2 in the eight-team, double-elimination tournament at Salem, Va.—but their hasty exit could not dull the luster of a transcendent season.

“It’s rough. You only play two games and you’re done,” said senior pitcher Erin Holloway, who posted a 27-5 record and finished her career atop the all-time IUP list in wins (78), shutouts (32), and strikeouts (1,004). “That was a real bummer. But it didn’t take away anything from what we accomplished all year.”

Coach Bill Graham’s Hawks had entered the CWS riding a wave of eleven consecutive postseason wins, one a 7-2 victory over West Chester that wrapped up IUP’s first PSAC title in the sport. Afterward, the players presented the championship trophy to Podbielski, the retired associate athletic director who oversaw the birth of the women’s athletic program in 1970.

“We all got chills,” said McCormick, recalling that emotional moment in Kutztown. “She was crying, she was so appreciative of it. We weren’t expecting her to be there—we heard she wasn’t feeling well that day and the weather wasn’t supposed to be real good and so she wasn’t gonna come. So we were excited when she made it to the game. Winning the championship was ten times better because she was there to see it.”

Podbielski, who regularly attends games at the South Campus field named in her honor, had much to applaud in 2011 as IUP equaled the school record for wins set the year before when Graham made a spectacular debut with the program.

“I didn’t come in here and expect to set the world on fire,” said Graham, whose Hawks ranked seventh in the final National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll. “I don’t know why they didn’t succeed before. That didn’t concern me; what concerned me was moving forward. And the one thing that I noticed when I got here was there was talent on this team.”

Erin Holloway pitching

Erin Holloway tops IUP’s all-time list in wins, shutouts, and strikeouts. (Keith Boyer)

As evidenced by the number of Hawks to garner all-star recognition in 2011. Holloway earned first-team NFCA All-America honors, McCormick was a third-team selection, and both joined senior right fielder Kristen Tunno, senior left fielder Michelle Bivona, senior designated player Raquel Rugani, senior second baseman Dee Eppinger, and sophomore catcher Stefanie Poates in collecting either all-region or All-PSAC honors, or both.

Graham’s team bolstered its considerable talent with a never-say-die spirit. The Hawks were as tenacious as pit bulls, a characteristic made manifest in the best-of-three Atlantic Region title series. With a CWS berth hanging in the balance, they twice staged dramatic comebacks to sweep defending champion Bloomsburg.

IUP jolted the Huskies in the opener at Podbielski Field by scoring three times in the bottom of the seventh for a 3-2 victory, the last two runs coming in on Eppinger’s two-out, two-strike single. Freshman third baseman Mary Ward conjured up more late-inning magic the next day by smacking a two-run homer with one out in the seventh to give the Hawks a riveting 2-1 victory and trigger another wild celebration on the diamond.

“We all just exploded out of the dugout when Mary hit that home run,” McCormick said. “You see it in all the pictures that we have of that game, how excited we were. We were jumping in the air, hugging each other. Nobody expected a freshman to hit a game-winning, walk-off home run.”

But they did expect to win. That was a constant during the season, even when the odds against the Hawks were longer than Rapunzel’s hair.

“These girls came through in the toughest of situations,” said Graham, the PSAC Central Division Coach of the Year. “They never lost their confidence. You can ask any of them and they’ll say they really believed we could win those games against Bloomsburg.”

Alas, the Hawks failed to produce similar heroics in Salem. North Georgia rolled to a 9-4 victory in the first round, and Midwestern (Texas) State sent IUP home with a 3-0 setback in the second. The Hawks surrendered twelve runs in two days after giving up only eight in their previous twelve games, committed two costly errors, and faltered at the plate (.180) after bringing a torrid .311 team batting average into the CWS.

“We could’ve made a better showing at the World Series than we did,” said junior shortstop Marissa Leslie. “Against North Georgia, we hit the ball in the first couple of innings, but after that our bats kind of went dead. Against Midwestern State, I felt as if we beat ourselves. Only one run was earned by them, and we couldn’t even score one ourselves. It was a real letdown.”

But at least the Hawks got that far, providing an exclamation point to a spring of unprecedented achievement. Advancing to the CWS is what will stick with Erin Holloway, not the two defeats suffered there.

“This season really was a dream come true, as cliché as that sounds,” she said. “One of my dreams since I started playing softball was to make the World Series, at whatever level I was playing at. So for our team to actually get there, that was an amazing feeling. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

IUP’s Best Seasons

 

By Wins
Record Year Coach
38-8 2011 Bill Graham
38-12 2010 Bill Graham
35-11 2001 Sue Snyder
31-18 2000 Sue Snyder
27-19 1999 Sue Snyder

 

By Winning Percentage
Percentage Record Year Coach
.826 38-8 2011 Bill Graham
.761 35-11 2001 Sue Snyder
.760 38-12 2010 Bill Graham
.634 26-15 2002 Sue Snyder
.633 31-18 2000 Sue Snyder