WINONA LAKE – Perseverance.
It’s a trait that has defined the Grace College softball program and its coach Heather Johnson.
The Lancers are now reaping some of the rewards for that outstanding quality.
Grace, owners of a 27-28 record, is headed to the NCCAA World Series for the first time since 1997. The event begins Thursday in Roanoke, Virginia.
The Lancers are the No. 4 seed in the 10-team, double-elimination tournament that runs through Saturday. Grace will play No. 5 seed Trinity Christian Thursday at 2:30 p.m. in its opener.
Johnson, a 1994 Grace graduate and former star pitcher for the softball program, is in her fifth season as the coach of her alma mater.
“This is a big boost,” said Johnson of earning a World Series berth. “A lot of our girls have gone through some tough times here and it’s rewarding for the ones who stayed committed and stuck through it.
“Last year, we were literally one pitch away for going. This was a goal of the team this year and they believed they could do it. It will only help us to be able to go and play that level of competition.”
“The girls are thrilled and excited. They have worked hard and I always knew we could do it. We had a rough preseason and a tough start this year. But, the girls have bought in and our freshmen matured.”
Grace, which has not had a winning season since 1997, earned their berth last week. The Lancers won three games on Monday and then bounced back from a 7-2 loss to Cedarville to then beat them 9-5 Tuesday to win the Midwest Region championship as the No. 4 seed in the five-team field.
The Lancers, who were 19-31 last spring, won 19 conference games this season. That highest ever total of wins earned them a fourth-place finish in the Crossroads League, also the highest ever.
Grace has done it with a young team. The roster has just three seniors and includes seven freshmen and six sophomores.
The three seniors, as in Tiffany Featherston from Anderson, Jordan McKinley from Churubusco and Olivia Winget from Wabash, are the epitome of commitment, according to their coach.
“This senior class was my first class and only three of the 10 from then are left,” said Johnson. “They want to win. They won nine games as freshmen. I’m grateful to them for their loyalty and their tenacity. They showed me their character and I’m thankful for them.”
The Lancers have been led by the stellar trio of junior outfielder Brooke Shell, freshman pitcher Hannah Adams and freshman third baseman Clarissa Knight. Adams, who serves as the team’s designated player when not pitching, has a torn labrum in her right (non-pitching) shoulder.
“I’m afraid that Brooke is a once-in-a-lifetime player,” said Johnson of her star, who began her career at IPFW. “She’s just such an intense competitor and so smart. She’s definitely our spark plug and the one who sets the tone for us. She’s really grown in her leadership.”
“Hannah (who also plays basketball) is a raw talent. She can be an intimidating factor out there. Clarissa is the combination of power and speed. She’s powerful and smart.”
“This team is very fast and if we attack and play our game we will be fine. We just want to compete and be aggressive in every game.”
Johnson, whose husband Jay is one of her assistant coaches, is pleased with the payoff.
“We talk about the program and getting it back to the success it had in the past,” Johnson said. “For me, this builds confidence that we are doing things the right way.
“There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears the last five years. There’s been frustration. But, it’s been worth the sacrifices.”