By Jon Gold
At the end of last season, 294 Division I softball teams across the country trudged off the field one last time, heads drooped, shoulders in the dirt, eyes welling up, their seasons over with a loss.
Just two programs capped off their season with pure, unbridled joy.
When you watch a replay of Loyola Marymount’s final out of 2018, you’d never know the Lions weren’t the ones celebrating in Oklahoma City at the Women’s College World Series.
No, they were on their own diamond, having just sealed the second annual NISC postseason tournament, the NIT of college softball, but smiles were just as wide as Florida State’s after the Seminoles won the WCWS last year. The gloves flew just as high after they were tossed in the air.
For a program on the rise, one written off for more than a decade, a NISC title felt no less significant.
“Even though it wasn’t the national championship, it was a national championship,” head coach Sami Strinz-Ward said. “We had an opportunity to finish the season with a win, and to be a champion.”
And, most importantly to the Lions, an opportunity to take one big step as a program.
GEARING UP FOR 2019
Just days before their regular season is set to begin, you can hear the impatience over the phone.
When you’re on the verge of something special – as the Lions believe they are – you kind of want to get going with it, right? Their tapping feet are understandable.
Loyola Marymount has a senior-and-sophomore led group, headed by preseason all-conference senior pitcher Hannah Bandimere, and the team’s youthful exuberance is showing.
“Everyone is pretty anxious,” Strinz-Ward said. “We’ve only faced ourselves. We can’t tell if our pitcher is good or our hitters are not good or the other. With all the rain we’ve had, just getting on the dirt has been hard, so facing someone in a different uniform is something we all need right now. It’s not even a want, it’s a need.”
Coming off an extended season last year, the Lions simply want to test themselves.
For the other 16 NISC teams, the young tournament helped provide a measure of season-long recognition, and like with a bowl game in college football or the postseason NCAA, NIT and CBI tournaments in college hoops, valuable additional practice time.
Strinz-put it to use, and she believes it had a big impact on her returning group, which includes sophomores Molly Grumbo, Delanie Wisz. Andrea Gonzalez – the top three batters for LMU last season – plus Maddison Flores, Linnay Wilson, and Megan Martin.
“They’re still (mostly) sophomores, trying to learn and grow and not get too comfortable,” Strinz-Ward said. “Knowing any success that comes, people are going to be able to pick them apart. They know they have to go out and improve. I know as the coach it was huge.”
Success is fleeting, that’s for sure. Especially when it’s a kind of success a team never truly wants in the first place.
After all, winning the NISC makes the Lions the 65th best team in the country, no? They’re on the outside looking in, even if they have the cushiest seat outside. Inside – the NCAA Tournament – is nice and warm, and Loyola Marymount hasn’t visited in a dozen years.
Strinz-Ward is sure her team was, and is, one of the top 64 teams in the country. Her players feel the same.
All that’s standing in their way this year is one looming adversary.
Big, bad BYU.
CATCH THE COUGARS
When Strinz-Ward arrived at LMU in 2015, the former Lions pitcher and utility player – whose name remains all over the program’s record books – knew what it would take to return her alma mater to glory.
Catch the Cougars.
BYU has won five straight West Coast Conference titles, clinching last year’s championship with a season-defining doubleheader sweep of the Lions. Loyola Marymount trimmed the gap between itself and BYU all year, heading into the regular-season swan song tied for first in conference play and fully believing it had a chance to kick the Cougars off their perch.
After a brutal preseason that included the nation’s 12th-toughest non-conference schedule, Strinz-Ward said, the Lions believed they were in a good position to take home the title. They were tested. They were tough. They were ready.
Instead, BYU nipped LMU, 3-2, in the early game, and smashed the Lions, 8-0, in the late game.
Strinz-Ward puts it simply: “Saying this as their head coach, we choked.”
Worse, the final out of the first game – a diving catch into the dugout by BYU’s Caitlyn Alldredge off a bases-loaded pop fly by shortstop Lindsey Matoi – was replayed multiple times during every BYU game in the NCAA Tournament. Even when the Cougars weren’t playing.
As much as the NISC gave LMU a chance to refine some batting concepts that finally took hold during the postseason, and as good as it was to give the young core a little extra seasoning and a lot of extra confidence, it also gave the Lions a chance to re-define their ending.
“Lindsey was a senior, and she kept having to see that play over and over. It haunted her," Strinz-Ward said.
“For us to be able to play in and win the NISC gave her an opportunity to redeem herself. And it didn’t get aired on ESPN, but she made one of the phenomenal plays of the season for the last out of the national championship. She finished her career on a great play, not having to go out on that disappointment.”
EARLY SEASON FIREWORKS
This season, things will play out drastically different.
There’s this: BYU travels to LMU this time around, and having the Cougars on the Lions’ own dirt will be a huge advantage as BYU went 11-1 in Provo last year.
And then there’s this: Instead of closing out the year with the Cougars, the Lions welcome them the first week of conference play. That’s like opening the fireworks show with the finale.
“Our mentality this year is that we’re not playing any team, we’re playing the ball,” Bandimere said. “That’s a great mentality. I don’t think we see them as this big thing.”
That’s music to Strinz-Ward’s ears.
“When I first took over the program, everyone was so fixated on BYU, ”Strinz-Ward said. “We really didn’t do a good job taking care of business outside of them. Even though our conference as a whole isn’t as strong RPI-wise, I tell you, every team in our conference, their whole goal is to win conference or play spoiler.”
Strinz-Ward tells a funny story of just how much the Cougars crept inside of the Lions’ heads.
“My first year here, we played our whole preseason normal, then we hosted BYU at home and all of a sudden all of our girls showed up wearing eye black,” Strinz-Ward said. “Out of nowhere. It’s like what are you doing, man? It drove me crazy. They didn’t know different. Their only goal was to beat BYU.”
That’s not the only goal this year, but it’s a big one.
The WCC is still a one-bid conference, and the Lions know the road to the NCAA Tournament begins and ends with that series.
“When I first took over, my overall goal was to be top 25 in first five years, ”Strinz-Ward said. “My personality isn’t to back down to anyone. If I had to describe myself as a human being, I’m motivated by proving people wrong. During the recruiting process, I’m trying to find those likeminded student-athletes who have a chip on their shoulder. We’re a white-collar school and I’m trying to find blue-collar workers here. I’m really straight forward about that in the recruiting process.”
It helped win Bandimere over, and it’s helped the Lions move on from the temporary elation of last season’s finish.
They have bigger goals ahead.
“We didn’t do what we wanted to do last year,” Bandimere said. “We wanted to make the NCAA tournament. We want it this year. We’re ready to put it into action.”