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In 2009, North Dakota State University erased that absence and became the first league team to advance to the new round of 16. The impressive feat came in the Bison's second season as a Summit League member and the first that they were eligible for postseason competition.
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Summit League Softball Diamond Gems

Courtesy: The Summit League
Release: May 18, 2012

By Steve Newton

The Summit League has sponsored softball as a championship sport since 1993 and in the two decades since, there have been some memorable teams to take the diamond. In the league's first NCAA appearance, Illinois-Chicago won its regional and advanced to the 1994 Women's College World Series.

More recently, DePaul reached the WCWS in 1999 and placed third, giving the league its highest finish in history. Just three seasons ago, North Dakota State nearly became the third team to reach Oklahoma City during a magical run that included a regional title and the league's initial Super Regional appearance.

PAINTING THE WOMEN'S COLLEGE WORLD SERIES BLUE

As a member of The Summit League (then known as the Mid-Continent Conference) from 1993 through the 1999 season, Eugene Lenti's DePaul softball teams dominated its conference competition, reached the Women's College World Series and achieved the league's highest national finish.

In seven seasons in The Summit League, Lenti's teams were conference regular season champions five-straight times (1995-99) and conference tournament champions four times (1995 and 1997-99). From 1997 through 1999, they never suffered a loss in Summit League competition.  The 1999 team, which placed third at the Women's College World Series, wrapped up conference play with a 22-0 record and a 54-14 overall mark.

"The 1999 season was a magical year for us," Lenti said. "We had a very experienced squad back that year and they were ready to prove themselves day-in and day-out."

After outscoring its opponents 12-1 en route to the 1999 conference tournament title, DePaul made the six mile trek to the University of Illinois-Chicago campus, site of the No. 8 NCAA Regional.  The Blue Demons went 4-0 in the regional, defeating host school and former Summit League member, UIC, twice, before beating Michigan State, 2-0, in the regional championship game.

 "We were basically at home at that regional, so we felt very comfortable because we didn't have to adjust to a new city," Lenti said. "What I remember most was how fortunate we were against Michigan State.  We only had four hits as a team in that game and the same two players recorded those four hits.  They each had a single and a home run."

One week later at the Women's College World Series, the Blue Demons lost their first postseason game at the hands of the UCLA Bruins, 3-2, in eight innings.  The loss forced DePaul into the loser's bracket where Lenti's squad rattled off two-straight 1-0 victories over Southern Mississippi and the University of Arizona.  The wins set up a rematch against UCLA. The Bruins won 2-1 in eight innings to eliminate the Blue Demons and went on to win the NCAA Championship.

DePaul competed in four NCAA Regionals (1995 and 1997-99) during its seven seasons as a member of The Summit League.  Perhaps what was most impressive during those years were the postseason awards that rolled in for Lenti and his team.  

Lenti was named the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) National Coach of the Year in 1999.  He was a three-time Summit League Coach of the Year (1995, 1998-99), coached five league Pitcher of the Year selections (Kimberlee Blackmore in 1995 and Nicole Terpstra from 1996-99), three Newcomers of the Year (Terpstra in 1996, Julie Luna in 1997 and Dana Jakusz in 1998) and three Players of the Year (Missy Nowak in 1995 and Liza Brown in 1998-99).  

Of the 10 All-America softball honors in league history, nine went to DePaul players including Nowak (1994-95), Yvette Healy (1996, '98) and Erin Hickey (1997). The 1999 Blue Demon team featured a trio of All-Americans in Brown, who also claimed the award the previous year, Shavaughne Desecki and Terpstra.

Thirteen seasons after the Blue Demons' final game in The Summit League, the legacy of Lenti's program continues. The 1999 team remains as the greatest in league history. In 2011, Lenti and Brown were voted to The Summit League's list of Top 30 Distinguished Contributors as part of the league's 30th Anniversary Season celebration.  

BISON RUN TO SUPER REGIONAL

Beginning in 2001, the NCAA expanded from eight regional sites to 16 and added a Super Regional round, where the regional champions would compete in a best-of-three series to earn a trip to Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series.

Eight seasons went by before a Summit League school made it through the regional round and on to a NCAA Softball Super Regional.  In 2009, North Dakota State University erased that absence and became the first league team to advance to the new round of 16. The impressive feat came in the Bison's second season as a Summit League member and the first that they were eligible for postseason competition.

NDSU joined The Summit League in 2008 and while crowned regular season champions after a 14-2 league record, were ineligible to participate in postseason play due to the NCAA's five-year reclassification period after moving up to the Division I level.

"There was a lot of motivation to prove that we belonged in the conference," Bison head coach Darren Mueller said. "We had some experience playing [NCAA] Division I schools, because we spent a four-year period competing against Division I schools when we weren't in a conference.  That was during our transition from a Division II softball team to a Division I softball team."

The Bison went 19-4 in league play during the 2009 season and earned a No. 2 seed for the conference tournament.  NDSU beat No. 3 seed Centenary and fourth-seeded Southern Utah to proceed to the championship against top-seeded Western Illinois, where the Bison overcame the Leathernecks to secure the automatic bid to the NCAA Softball Tournament.  

At the Norman (Okla.) Regional, North Dakota State continued its post season run by defeating Oklahoma, the No. 7 national seed, 1-0. The following day, the Bison scored a dramatic 3-2 walk-off win over Tulsa on a two-run seventh inning double by Melissa Chmielewski. NDSU then topped Tulsa for the second time in two days and claimed the regional championship with a 4-1 victory.

NDSU faced a stern test in the Super Regional round, traveling to Tempe, Ariz., to meet defending national champion Arizona State in a series that was broadcast nationally on ESPNU. The Sun Devils, seeded No. 10 nationally, proved to be too much for the Bison and advanced to the WCWS with 3-0 and 11-0 victories.

Still, the experience was memorable and historical for both the school and the league.

"The team chemistry during the 2009 season was fantastic," Mueller said. "All of our players got along very well and the girls were extremely competitive.  

"Things began to start rolling for us toward the end of the season. We won the conference tournament and next thing you know we were in the Oklahoma Regional, where we won three-straight games to move on to Tempe."

The 2009 run marked the first of three consecutive Summit League tournament titles for North Dakota State, making them only the second team (with DePaul from 1997-99) to achieve that feat.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This feature was originally published in the 2012 Summit League Softball Championship program (May 10-12).

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