When the Brenau University softball team advanced to the NAIA National Championship tournament in 2009, the players didn’t know what to expect.
For a program just five years from its inception, it was a new experience, one that was short lived when the team failed to advance in the tournament.
Four years later, the Golden Tigers are back at the national tournament beginning today in Gulf Shores, Ala., and expectations have been raised.
“When we went down there in 2009, we didn’t really know what to expect,” said first baseman Ellen Black, one of four seniors who were on the 2009 team. “The coaches didn’t even know. They had never been. It’s a whole different world out there, but this year, I feel like we have a better idea of what it’s like.”
“We worked hard last year, but just missed out,” coach Devon Thomas said. “They’re back, though, and now they understand what it takes and what’s expected over there.”
Ranked No. 16 in the country, Brenau (39-14) has put itself among the elite in a number of categories across the board. The Golden Tigers are the No. 1 fielding team in the country with a .977 fielding percentage and eighth in ERA at 1.41. They are ranked just 50th in batting, but have still had their bats erupt, scoring more than 20 runs in a single game twice and more than 10 on nine occasions. It’s a long way from the 2-38 record in Thomas’ first season.
Thomas started the program in 2004 and, as with any startup, encountered difficulties early on with recruiting players to come play for a new team.
“It was hard to sell a new brand right away,” he said. “It was a lot of hard work. We spent a lot of hours on the field and a lot going after potential players. It took a lot of people to buy into the system and a lot of persistence.
I was glad to have the support from the administration, the parents and, most importantly, my wife for putting up with the long hours.
“I couldn’t ask for better support from those guys.”
The progress didn’t happen overnight. The Golden Tigers improved from two wins in 2004 to seven in 2005. But, by the third season, they were winning 30-plus games per season, making the national rankings, and turning their eyes toward a more ambitious goal.
“We wanted to get a bid,” Thomas said.
Now the program is in more than stable condition. Thomas has already signed six players for next season and is working on his classes for 2013 and 2014.
“Before, it was at the point where I wouldn’t get a call back,” he said of the early struggles. “Now I’m going after people a year or two in advance.”
The next step is to compete for a title.
“That’s the ultimate goal every year,” Thomas said. “Now we feel like we can do it. Once you’re there, every team has a chance.”
Brenau will have its work cut out for it when it gets under way at 9 a.m. today. Its first game will be against No. 25 Bethany College (44-7). The toughest draw for the team, however, is that it has the nation’s top team, Concordia University, in its pool. The Golden Tigers will play the Eagles on Sunday.
Concordia (54-3) won 44 consecutive games in 2012 before losing to Asuza Pacific University on April 17.
“We just have to go in there and battle, and realize that anyone can beat anyone on any given day,” Thomas said. “We can’t make mistakes.”
Black said, for her, the focus is on the short term first.
“Our top goal is obviously to win the whole thing,” she said. “But in 2009, we lost our first game and were basically playing for nothing in the next two. So this year, we just want that first game. It really is just taking it one game at a time.”
The Golden Tigers will be without senior catcher, and team-leader in home runs, Morgan Smith, who found out after the conference tournament that she had been playing on a fractured ankle.
After trying to get back to the national tournament for three years, she was devastated to find out she wouldn’t be able to play.
“It comes to an end right before nationals,” Smith said. “I tried to convince the trainers to let me play, but they wouldn’t let me. I was crushed.”
But Smith said that she still feels like her goal of making it back was accomplished and that she’ll be at the tournament to help her team from the bench.
“It stinks that I can’t play, but I know my teammates will do fine without me,” she said. “I’m just excited about getting back.”
Thomas, who didn’t coach his team in the conference tournament due to an illness, said that he’s happy to be back and proud of his team’s effort.
“It shows our hard work every year has really paid off,” he said. “Now we just need to compete.”