During Historic Run, Hum Devils Rise to Top of EC Record Book

Photo courtesy of Blake Baxter.
Photo courtesy of Blake Baxter.

By Blake Baxter

EUREKA — Sydney Shubert's teammates at Eureka know what to expect from her by now.

Not just on the field, where she's garnered national attention for her stratospheric batting average and on-base percentage, but also in the dugout, on bus rides and in all the moments in between competition.

With her infectious energy and enthusiasm, the junior from Canton just has a way of setting the tone.

"I just get really excited really easily, and I like to get people going," Shubert said with a laugh. "I feel like when we're all up, we play a lot better than when we're not cheering at all. I try to keep everyone up, but that's how I've always been. I like cheering and getting everyone up and being loud and rattling the other team."

When she's in her element, Shubert's known for being one of the loudest, goofiest and most animated members of Eureka softball.  

And as the Red Devils prepare to do something only one other EC softball team has ever done, it's her catch phrase — Hum Devils! — that has become the embodiment of this team's historic run.

"It's kind of like our call," Shubert explained. "Like, I'll yell it, and everyone else will yell it behind me."

"Whenever someone gets a big hit or someone comes in clutch, we just yell it," freshman Alisyn Showalter said. "We just get fired up by it, I guess."

Since Shubert started saying it a few weeks ago, it's taken on a life of its own. Now, it's simultaneously a team rallying cry, a social media hashtag and something of an inside joke that will bring a smile to every player's face.

To EC coach Debi Neff, it's just another sign of the chemistry that this team has developed over the course of the year.

"I love it," EC coach Debi Neff said. "I wish I thought of it. It's great."

There was a time this spring, Shubert says, when not everyone was on the same wavelength. But those days are over now.

The Red Devils are humming, notching new milestones left and right and pushing the program to new heights every step of the way.

On Friday at 3:30 p.m., Eureka (27-6) will take on Wisconsin-Whitewater (26-12) in the Red Devils' second NCAA Tournament appearance in program history and first since 2002. It's the crown jewel in a treasure trove of accomplishments for this group this season.

But before the season moves on, it's worth taking a look back and considering all this team has accomplished.

The 2019 Red Devils are the first team in program history to become St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference league champions, and the first team to conquer the SLIAC Tournament and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tourney.

At the SLIAC Tourney, a total of six EC players received all-conference honors for only the second time ever. Shubert became the first Red Devil to be voted SLIAC Player of the Year, freshman Raelyn Payne became the first Red Devil to be named Newcomer of the Year and Neff was given Coach of the Year honors for the second time in her seven years at EC.

They've notched the most home runs of any EC team, sending 32 bombs over the fence in 33 games, and are only five doubles short of topping the program's record book in that category, too, with 74.

They're only the fourth team in program history to reach 25 wins, and this season marked the first time EC has notched back-to-back 25-win campaigns in program history.

This group pushed Eureka to 102 wins since the start of the 2016 season, making this the winningest four-year stretch in program history. And it helped Neff capture her 150th career win in the SLIAC Tournament.

Before she came to Eureka, Neff won 355 games in 17 seasons at East Peoria Community High School. She's been around the game a long time, but she's never seen anything quite like this.

"I've had some high school teams that have broken some records, but never to this extent," said Neff, who was inducted into the Illinois Coaches Association Softball Hall of Fame in 2015. "It's pretty common to break a couple records every season, but when you're breaking a record almost every game, it's just incredible to me."

If the season ended today, the 2019 team would hold program records in batting average (.412), on-base percentage (.453) and slugging percentage (.593) as well.

The Red Devils have also seen their share of individual records fall along the way.

Junior Morgan Ledbetter set the single-season record for home runs with a pair of long balls against Lincoln on April 23. Then, over the weekend in Fulton, Missouri, she set the program record for career home runs in a SLIAC Tourney winner's bracket game rout over Greenville.

Both records previously belonged to assistant coach Kelli Dunne, who knocked 14 dingers in two seasons at EC from 2013 to 2014. When she transferred to Eureka, Dunne says she never planned on going after any records.

"I had no idea at the start of my seasons what the numbers to beat were, and I think that is the same for Morgan," Dunne said. "She plays because she loves the game. I love watching her hit, because it truly amazes me how far and hard she hits the ball.

"I wish we could have gotten the chance to play together — that would have been one scary duo."

Ledbetter also currently holds the highest slugging percentage in program history (1.073). Shubert (.603), Ledbetter (.532) and Payne (.463) are now first, second and third, respectively, in career batting average among players who have recorded at least 100 plate appearances, while Shubert sits atop the single-season batting average list and is four hits away from Kerrigan Dura's single-season program record of 74.

In the circle, junior pitcher Erin Smith has tied with Tina Sharp (1996) for most wins in a single season (17), and is fourth in program history in career wins (38). She currently has the sixth-lowest career ERA at 2.31, is ninth in career strikeouts (185), is 5 2/3 innings pitched away from ninth in career innings and only one complete game away from tallying the most in a single season (19).

Her battery mate, junior Morgan Osborn, is working her way up the charts in several batting categories. The catcher from Washington is currently up to seventh in career RBIs (91), and is tied for fourth in career home runs (12) and doubles (33).

The Morgans, Ledbetter and Osborn, are second and fourth in single-season RBIs with 55 and 44, respectively.

However, this team's run hasn't been totally defined by shattered records and eye-popping numbers. A good chunk of its success has come from unsung heroes on the margins.

Freshman and No. 7 hitter Faith Bachtold, for example, delivered a breakout weekend at the SLIAC Tournament, leading the tourney field in batting average (.667), making several key plays in left field and going for 4-for-4 in the championship game to snag All-Tournament honors.

Sophomore and No. 8 hitter Klaire Wilmot went 2-for-3 on championship day and batted .375 on the weekend, and Showalter – the No. 9 hitter – came through in some big moments just a week after stepping into the designated hitter spot.  

Chief among them was when she came to the plate in the tournament opener in the middle of a crucial fifth-inning rally against Spalding. There were two on with two outs and the score tied at three runs apiece, and Showalter quickly fell behind to 0-2 in the count.

If she struck out, the game would have been tied with just two innings to play, and could have turned out differently for EC. Instead, Showalter stayed disciplined, drew a walk to load the bases and kept the inning going. Payne — who, by the way, holds the program's freshman home runs record (seven) — then knocked a two-run single on the next at-bat, and Shubert drove in another to give EC a three-run lead.

Showalter had two hits the next day, and produced a pair of sac fly RBIs in the championship game – including the one that clinched the win.

 "Morgan Osborn just kept telling me that she was super proud of me after I hit the sac fly on the last play," Showalter said. "Having teammates that will do that just really helps with your confidence."

That's part of what Neff says has made this team stand out from the rest. They put in the work and support each other, and have just the right mix of talent, softball IQ and fun-loving sense of humor.

"They have figured out the time to work and the time to have fun, and that's the huge difference in the making of a good team," Neff said. "When they work, they work, and when they're done, they laugh, and that's made this team what it is."

One of the definitions in the Oxford Dictionary for the word "hum" is to "be in a state of great activity." Hum Devils, indeed.