Nobody knows exactly what pulled USI’s promising pre-season softball team out of a downward spiral to become the first softball team in the state of Indiana to win an NCAA national championship. Some players say it was Potter Power—they relentlessly watched Harry Potter movies on bus trips to games to ensure wins after watching one the night before they broke a losing streak. Others think it was the motto their team adopted early in the season: “ope,” a Midwest expression of surprise. Many might think it was a combination of both, seasoned with a few other mojo-moves, such as batting order, hair-braiding and Red Bull consumption. While fun to joke about, the fact is no magic or motto is responsible for the team’s Phoenix rise and historic win. That resulted from pure grit, character, integrity, determination and the faith they had in each other.
Entering the season ranked sixth in the nation, the team’s skills were there from the start but it took time for the talent to cohere while players got to know each other. “We struggled consistently throughout the season, but somehow we figured out a way to better ourselves,” said outfielder Caitlyn Bradley ’19, a junior who’d played on USI’s 2017 NCAA Division II Midwest Region title-winning team. Head coach Sue Kunkle (17 years at USI and 500 wins) and her staff (NCAA II Coaching Staff of the Year winners) knew from the beginning they had “a World Series team, but we were going to get there in a very different way.”
Dubbed the Cinderella team late in the season, their early games weren’t pretty, as players battled injuries alongside bruised spirits as the team tumbled to 16th, then plunged off the charts and out of the top 25 within weeks. “We had A LOT of bumps and bruises this season,” said catcher Lindsey Barr ’19, a junior from Whitesville, Kentucky. “Many of us didn’t know if we would be able to pull through.”
Players confidence faltered, frustrations rose and tears flowed, despite the coaches’ assurances that skill wasn’t the problem. “It’s not physical ability. Not glove work. Not swings,” Kunkle said. “It’s all in their heads at this point. Once you make a mistake, then you make two more and start to feel….”
Having tried every tactic, and out of inspirational ideas, the coaches told the players to “Go play ball. Enjoy yourselves,” Kunkle said. “Stop thinking about everyone asking you, ‘Why aren’t you doing well?’”
By the end of regular season, the team’s record was 27-22 overall, and 15-13 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference (GLVC)—far from rock-star status as they eked their way into the GLVC Tournament. That’s when the wins started popping like champagne corks as they steadily toppled teams, sweeping their way to the GLVC title, a first for USI in 20 years, before winning the Midwest Region #1 Tournament, beating teams with superior rankings.
On the road from February to May, the team bounced between Alabama, Indiana, Florida, Illinois and Michigan before rolling into the NCAA Division II Championship in Salem, Virginia, as an unstoppable, united force that refused to lose, capturing the Division title and making history. “Who does that?” Kunkle said. “Who does what we did?”
Teams who support each other, have fun together, endure trying moments as one and believe in their hearts that anything is possible. “Most people think of ‘learning years’ as a down season or a season that isn’t as successful as others,” said sophomore pitcher Jennifer Leonhardt ’20, a Louisville native and NCAA II Softball Championship Most Outstanding Player, “but I think our success in the post season made this season a learning year. It showed us what we can do, and that anything can happen at tournament time!”