Exactly 11 years since it last accomplished the same feat, the Missouri State softball team stormed the field to celebrate a championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Missouri State rallied from an early deficit for a 10-4 win over top-seeded Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship on Saturday afternoon at Killian Stadium in Springfield. It clinches the Bears their seventh NCAA appearance in program history.
“All year long, our mission has been ‘Meraki,'” Holly Hesse, in her 34th year as head coach, said. “The definition of ‘Meraki’ is to leave something special behind. That’s what they did by winning a seventh championship and putting Missouri State alone at the top for most championships in our conference.”
Players stormed the field in celebration after a flyout to left proved to be the final out of the game, but it wasn’t that easy as the Bears used some magic along the way.
Down 3-2 in the top of the fourth, the Bears had three early errors after coming out a little more hyped than Hesse is used to seeing her team play. They threw the ball around more than usual leading to a few Panther runs.
On the hot summer day, storm clouds in the distance provided enough lightning to cause a delay. For 44 minutes, the Bears had a chance to calm down.
Players went into the locker room, took off their cleats and took a deep breath.
“We debriefed,” senior Madison Hunsaker said. “Coach said it was like halftime and that we would go win the second half. We were prepared for this.”
After the break, the Bears appeared calmer knowing that all they had to do was just play their game. Since halfway through the season, the Bears tried to treat every game like they were on a vacation and just have fun.
And it worked.
Hunsaker, one of three Bears who were dubbed First Team All-MVC this season, found herself up with two runners on in the top of the fifth. A three-run shot over the center-field wall gave the Bears a lead that they never gave back.
“I don’t even remember the swing,” Hunsaker said. “I just said a few hype words but it felt like one of the best ones I’ve ever had in my career.”
Missouri State continued to add to its lead but it didn’t need to do much when it had the Valley’s Pitcher of the Year dealing on the mound.
Steffany Dickerson retired the first six batters after the lightning delay and only allowed two hits the rest of the way. She got the biggest win of her career in seven innings, allowing six total hits and two earned runs while striking out 10.
Dickerson, like Hesse, got a Powerade bath after pitching in the biggest game of her life.
“It’s nice knowing that us super seniors could leave a legacy here and just leave a piece of art behind,” Dickerson said. “Just letting everyone else have a piece of this moment, even future Bears and past Bears, this is for everyone. This isn’t just for us. We just had to come out and get it done today.”
Dickerson got plenty of help behind her in the later innings. Tess Weakly had a solo shot in the sixth before a two-run double in the seventh. Olivia Krehbiel scored thanks to a UNI error before an Ellie McCoy sacrifice fly brought home Kat Taylor in the top of the seventh for the last little bit of insurance.
A one-two-three bottom of the seventh led to a dogpile at the mound.
“I love this team so freaking much,” Dickerson said. “This team might be the best team I’ve ever been on because of the chemistry in everything we do. We are all so tight-knit and I just love this team. I will do anything for this team. They deserve my best just like I know they’ll give me their best. I love it.”
On May 14, 2011, the Bears defeated Drake in Springfield for the conference tournament title before going on to play three games in Norman, Oklahoma, where they lost to Tulsa twice and beat Iona for one of the three NCAA Tournament wins in the program’s history.
Hunsaker and Dickerson both said Hesse had talked throughout the season about how the current iteration of the team reminded her of the one that went dancing over a decade ago.
The Bears of 2011, according to Hesse, always had fight and showed their belief in each other while showing their love and commitment to the game and program. Eleven years later, the newest Bears to reach the NCAA Tournament showed the exact same thing.
“I’m just so happy for this team,” Hesse said. “They have worked hard from Day 1. We talk about how the ending depends on the beginning and in our beginning, everyone came in and passed the fitness test this year and that was the beginning of their commitment to hard work and commitment to the vision.
“They deserve this. They deserve it.”
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He’s also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.
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