BEAUMONT, Texas – The 2017 Lamar University softball season was indeed one for the record books and for the memory books.
The Cardinals smashed individual and team records in a year that saw them make their first-ever appearance in a national postseason tournament; an appearance that shone a positive national spotlight on the program for the way the Cardinals handled themselves after a controversial ending in the championship game.
LU’s overall record of 34-31 was one win shy of the school record of 35 victories set one year earlier. The Cardinals redeemed themselves for an early exit in the Southland Conference Tournament by going on a memorable run in the National Invitational Softball Championship. LU won the NISC regionals at the LU Softball Complex to advance to the national tournament in Lynchburg, Virginia.
“We turned an average season into a fantastic one,” LU coach Holly Bruder said about her team’s postseason run. “We gained some experience and exposure. I definitely saw some growth. We put everything together during those two weeks.”
LU had a 5-3 lead over the host Liberty Flames with two outs in the bottom of the sixth in the championship after scoring four runs in the top of the sixth when the game was called. Because the sixth inning was never completed, Liberty was awarded a 3-1 win when tournament officials called the game after just 19 minutes into a rain delay, even though NCAA rules stipulate that at least 30 minutes must elapse before a game is called. The score reverted to the last completed inning.
No matter what the official outcome was listed as, the Cardinals were greeted as champions when they returned home, as fans were waiting at the LU Softball Complex to welcome home the team and to thank them for a memorable season.
“The way the players handled themselves through the adversity was tremendous,” Bruder said. “Obviously, we were all disappointed and upset, but everyone handled it with class. I think we gained a lot of respect.”
It was a season that saw Ashley McDowell graduate with a slew of LU career records. McDowell, a fifth-year senior, was the lone remaining player from the 2013 team, LU’s first softball squad after disbanding the program following the 1987 season. McDowell, who hit a walk-off home run over UTSA in the first game of that 2013 season, leaves LU as the career record holder for games played (231), at-bats (690), hits (201), doubles (42), home runs (21), RBIs (107), total bases (320), fielding chances (1,183) and putouts (1,098). She shares the LU career marks for stolen bases (37) and sacrifice flies (11). She scored a single-season record 49 runs in 2017.
Senior pitcher Ciara Luna went 19-18 with a 2.33 ERA to tie the single-season school record for wins while setting the modern-era mark for ERA. Luna, who played two seasons for the Cardinals after transferring from Navarro College, set the school mark for strikeouts in a season with 157 this year and holds the LU career record with 269 strikeouts.
Catcher Brynn Baca, who caught all but one game this past season, was hit by a pitch a record 18 times this season, bring her school-record total to 46 for her career. Baca’s career on-base percentage of .445 is just ahead of center fielder Brittany Rodriguez’s .444 figure. Rodriguez, who will be a senior in 2018, broke her own school record with 81 hits in 2017.
Pitcher Laura Napoli, who will be a senior in 2018, already holds LU career marks for wins (39), innings pitched (462.2) and saves (7). Napoli is third on the LU career list with 220 strikeouts.
Several LU players earned postseason honors in 2017. Baca and Rodriguez were first-team All-Southland Conference selections. Luna and infielder Sable Hankins were second-team all-conference selections. McDowell and second baseman Kelly Meeuwsen were named to the third team, while right fielder Corina Thornton received honorable-mention recognition. McDowell and Meeuwsen were both second-team selections on the conference’s all-academic squad.
McDowell, Luna and Baca were all named to the all-tournament team at the National Invitational Softball Championships.
“We are losing three great seniors who contributed on the field and off,” Bruder said. “Losing three all-conference players is tough. Losing three all-conference players who are great people is even tougher. What they did to help lay the foundation for the program is immeasurable.”
Fans support was better than ever for the Cardinals, who drew a record 6,327 fans to home games in 2017. The enthusiastic and loyal following was one of the reasons LU was selected as one of the host sites for the NISC regionals. LU set a home attendance record for a non-conference game when 466 fans witnessed the Cardinals drop a 4-1 decision to the 13th-ranked Baylor Bears on April 25.
“We’ve had great support since the program returned,” Bruder said. “Through thick or thin they have been there for us. Not only at home, but on the road. I can’t say enough good things about our fans.”
Bruder is optimistic about the future of the program as it heads into its sixth season.
“I’m staring at two tremendous trophies. We were second at the conference tournament in 2016 and runner-up in the NISC this year,” she said. “I think all of us here don’t want to be runner-up. Our goal is to bring some championship trophies to LU.”