By Blake Baxter
EUREKA — If you ask Adrianna Zeman, the turning point of the 2019 Eureka softball team's season came early.
And if you take a quick glance at the Red Devils' schedule, you might miss it.
It happened the first weekend of competition.
EC coach Debi Neff's team opened the season in late March with a tough road doubleheader against North Central, and came home with an 0-2 record. With it being their first time out, the EC women could have chalked it up to rust. With an influx of new players and not a single senior on the roster, they could have blamed youth and inexperience.
But getting outhit, leaving runners on base, committing untimely errors and striking out too many times didn't sit well with this group, and they knew they were capable of more. How much more was an open question, but they got a hint the next day.
The following afternoon, the Red Devils turned it all around on their home field in a St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference season-opening sweep over Blackburn.
It was only two games, but that day foreshadowed a lot of what was to come this season.
"I think that's the first time we realized how good of hitters we do have because we came off obviously losing our first doubleheader," Zeman said. "That's kind of rough to take, because it was kind of like a setback, but I think it drove us to want to hit better. And then Blackburn showed 'We can do this.' Everyone realized we're ready."
The Red Devils haven't lost back-to-back games since that weekend, and if they can avoid losing twice this weekend in Fulton, Missouri, they'll be on to the NCAA Division III Tournament for only the second time in program history.
On Friday at 3 p.m., top-seeded Eureka (24-6) will open the three-day, double-elimination SLIAC Softball Tournament against fourth-seeded Spalding (26-13) at Westminster College's Blue Jay Field.
Just a few days ago, the Red Devils swept Spalding to clinch the regular-season SLIAC title in front of the Red Devil faithful at Sweitzer Field, officially joining the line of recent EC athletic successes.
The conference title was Eureka's third of the 2018-2019 school year and fifth in the past three years.
After women's basketball first opened the door in 2017, football went back-to-back in 2017 and 2018, and men's basketball did it in February, it's the softball program's turn to stand in the spotlight.
"It's been kind of a goal of ours as a softball program, to get more audience and applause," freshman Raelyn Payne said. "We saw the success from the football and the basketball team this year, and I mean, we want to contribute to that as well. So I think that's been good motivation."
"It's been amazing to see all the support walking around campus," Zeman added. "I think that's just getting us even more pumped and ready to be there."
The Red Devils enter the tourney leading Division III in batting average, hitting .410 on the season. They're second in doubles per game (2.37), fourth in scoring (8.13) and on-base percentage (.449), and fifth in slugging percentage (.584). They lead the SLIAC in all of those categories, plus home runs per game (.87)
Junior Sydney Shubert (Heartland Community College) leads the nation in batting average (.617) and is second in on-base percentage (.643), while fellow junior transfer Morgan Ledbetter (Culver-Stockton) is second nationally in slugging (1.000), third in home runs per game (.40) and eighth in batting average (.525).
In addition to those newcomers, Payne has had a powerful debut season in Eureka, batting .450 with 13 doubles and seven home runs in the leadoff spot. Captains Morgan Osborn and Zeman are both hitting in the 430s at .439 and .432, respectively, and Allison Cagley (.349) and Faith Bachtold (.345) are pushing .350.
On top of all the gaudy offensive stats, EC also has the second-highest fielding percentage in the SLIAC at .950.
Meanwhile, junior right-hander and team captain Erin Smith has had a career year in the circle, recording a SLIAC-low 1.74 ERA while striking out 68 batters and only walking .75 per game. She pitched both games in the Spalding sweep on Sunday, improving to 14-3 on the year.
Zeman says all these numbers are the result of the team's commitment to putting in time outside of practice to continue to improve. Some of it came from the wisdom passed down from last year's seniors. Some of it came from a group of new players who quickly bought in to the team's philosophies.
It's all paying off now.
"Ninety-five percent of the time that I come in here to hit, I find someone else here," Zeman said. "They want to get better, so here we are today.
"We want to play," she added. "The second we left the field, I just heard everyone say that they want to be at Westmin. We're ready to go. We've been putting in work literally since we left (the field), even though we haven't had practice, because that's just how bad we want to be there."
Before Spalding, EC split with second-seeded Iowa Wesleyan (26-9) and third-seeded Greenville (20-12) in the regular season. Any rematch it gets in Fulton won't be easy. Although the Red Devils are only 1-6 in SLIAC Tournament play in three appearances, and were ranked sixth in the preseason poll, they have a target on their back now.
Regardless, Smith says she's expecting her team to respond by bringing the energy it had in the dugout — and the sense of calm it had on the field – in Sunday's wins.
"It's still just a game, no matter what the situation is," she said. "We're still going to play like we know how. We're just going to keep working.
"We're not going to stop and rest."