Julia Keffler still can’t believe the UMBC softball team captured the America East Conference championship. In fact, the sophomore right fielder has watched film of the Retrievers’ 4-0 shutout of Stony Brook in the conference championship game three times — once on the bus ride home from Hartford, Conn., and twice in the background while completing her homework.
“Sometimes it feels like it hasn’t even set in yet,” she said. “But I’ve been rewatching the game, and it’s crazy to see how well we played and how awesome it was to win.”
The league crown was the program’s first since joining the conference in 2004, and the school’s reward is its first berth in the NCAA tournament since 2002. UMBC (30-22) will meet overall No. 1 seed and Big 12 champion Oklahoma (49-2) in the double-elimination Norman Regional on Friday at 9:30 p.m.
The team’s achievement occasionally even catches coach Chris Kuhlmeyer off-guard.
“I still haven’t really got all of that emotion in yet,” he said. “When I saw that last pitch and their girl swing and miss, just the emotion and joy on their faces will be a moment I will never forget. Just seeing them celebrate on the field and taking it all in and just sitting back is going to be one of those life things I’ll always cherish and never forget. I am just so happy for those girls and everything they’ve gone through in the last several years. To experience that with them and be on this ride with them is one of the greatest things in my life so far.”
This is Kuhlmeyer’s first season in Catonsville after assistant coaching stints at three schools and serving as head coach at Belmont, where he became the program’s leader in wins with 94. Kuhlmeyer said he agreed with athletic director Tim Hall’s belief that the Retrievers were poised to win a title, and he relayed that message to the players in his first meeting with them in September.
While appreciative of the new coach’s self-confidence, some players remained skeptical — a sentiment shared by America East coaches who voted UMBC to finish last in their preseason poll.
“The first two years, I feel like we definitely didn’t work as hard as we do this year, but I think the team dynamic is a lot different this year,” junior shortstop Maddie Daigneau said. “I feel like we’re more together. We get along great. I think having a new coach really helped because over the other years, a lot of us lost a lot of confidence in ourselves. So having this new coach, I think he definitely helped everyone regain their confidence again and be able to love the sport again.”
In a season of ups and downs, the low point occurred when the Retrievers were mired in a six-game losing streak in the America East, dropping both ends of a doubleheader at Stony Brook on April 10, getting swept in three games by UMass Lowell on April 19 and 21, and losing to Stony Brook again at home April 24.
“That was a tough time, and we had to re-evaluate some things,” freshman left-handed pitcher Courtney Coppersmith said. “We had to learn from it and be able to go out the next time and get them. We really looked at what we did wrong and what we could do better.”
Kuhlmeyer credits the emergence of Coppersmith (21-12 in 40 games with a school single-season record 342 strikeouts) and fellow freshman Gillian McCarthy (8-10 in 22 appearances) with strengthening the pitching rotation. A more aggressive approach at the plate has contributed to a team batting average of .282 that ranked second in the conference.
Giants fall all the time throughout history. So why not us?— UMBC coach Chris Kuhlmeyer on his team's chances in the NCAA regionals
Off the diamond, the players said junior second baseman Kaly Winslow’s idea of writing notecards has been a hit. Before the start of a series against an America East opponent, they would select teammates’ names from a bag and write notes of encouragement. Before the league tournament began, the players directed the notes to themselves and then shared them with teammates to keep each other accountable.
“A lot of times, it’s hardest to compliment yourself, and you always have the least amount of confidence in yourself,” Keffler said. “Your whole team is always there for you, but you have to be there for yourself, and it’s very important to tell yourself that you’ve got this, you can do anything, and being able to give it to another teammate who inspires you and is always there for you just made it that much more special.”
UMBC will face a Sooners team that has won an NCAA-record 39 games in a row this spring and won national championships in 2000, 2013, 2016 and 2017. Tickets for the 1,378-seat Marita Hynes Field sold out in eight minutes Monday morning. UMBC and Oklahoma will be joined by Wisconsin (40-12) and Notre Dame (36-16) in the four-team regional.
Daigneau said the Retrievers’ status as a heavy underdog won’t dissuade them.
“I think not a lot of people are expecting a lot out of us,” she said. “So I hope we can surprise them and show them what it takes. I’m sure these [Oklahoma] players have never seen us hit or field, and I think that’s an advantage because they haven’t seen us play. They don’t know where to pitch us, they don’t know how we’re going to be in the field. So I definitely think that we’re going to work as hard as we can because it’s motivation to prove people wrong again.”
Kuhlmeyer said he didn’t flinch at the prospect of taking on a juggernaut like Oklahoma.
“We have a shot,” he said. “We’re one of the 64 teams left playing and practicing and competing for a national championship. Giants fall all the time throughout history. So why not us?”