Jalian Young’s final year with the Morgan State softball team has been an exercise in physical and mental perseverance.
Before the 2021 season even began, she got sick. Then just as it was about to start, she and several teammates tested positive for the coronavirus. And then in a 12-1 rout of Bowie State on March 27, she collided with an opposing player, fracturing a tooth, requiring facial stitches, and sitting out another week.
“So there was a lot of down time for me,” the senior center fielder said with a laugh. “But being able to come back and play with my team and be with my favorite girls was definitely fulfilling.”
Adversity has given way to achievement after Young and the Bears (21-15 overall and 14-5 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) captured the league’s Northern Division title on May 2, only their second overall championship and first since 2018. They will take aim at their first conference tournament crown in program history when they open play against North Carolina Central (11-29, 9-7) on Thursday at 3 p.m. at Norfolk State in Virginia.
After leading the MEAC with the most wins in the regular-season, Morgan State is feeling encouraged about its chances.
“We know we can do this, and we’re not going into the tournament worrying about any specific team,” graduate student pitcher Stephanie Rundlett said. “We’re going in thinking, ‘Yeah, we can definitely beat them.’ We don’t have any bad attitudes. We’re positive in a way that it’s not cocky.”
The team’s road to success seemed inconceivable in mid-February when the university shut down all athletic activity after approximately 40 positive cases for COVID-19 were discovered.
The softball team was one of 13 athletic programs affected by the suspension, which wiped out 15 nonconference games that coach Larry Hineline hoped to use as a gauge for his team’s strengths and weaknesses. Instead, he and his assistants helped deliver meals to their players quarantined to their dorm rooms and off-campus homes.
“Look, we’re blessed that we’re able to play now. but we weren’t allowed to practice, we were in quarantine and isolation,” he recalled. “So it was a strain mentally and physically, and when I say physically, I mean that they couldn’t do anything. There was a pause at the university, but we all came out better for it. From a softball competitive perspective, we weren’t on the field or in the gym or anything. It was almost like four weeks of inactivity, but we’re in midseason form now, and I feel really good about where we are.”
Hineline said the coaches scrambled to recruit Kutztown for a doubleheader on March 10 before opening the MEAC portion of its schedule with back-to-back doubleheaders against Norfolk State on March 13-14. But the Bears won all four games by scores of 1-0, 5-3, 6-2 and 6-2, injecting some much-needed confidence into the players.
“I saw that there was a lot of depth,” said Young, who missed those games while waiting for her quarantine to end. “So I was always of the mindset that we were going to do well this season. but winning four straight games against Norfolk definitely put us into a positive light and a position where we were like, ‘We can do this. We can go all the way.’”
Morgan State reached a low point, however, the following month during a four-game losing streak capped by setbacks to North Carolina A&T on April 16 and South Carolina State on April 17 at the MEAC Round-Up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Back at the team hotel, the team had a meeting with the coaches and then a second one involving only the players.
“There was a lot of tension about what was going on,” Rundlett said. “So when we talked — us and the coaches — the coaches got to say stuff, and we heard what they said. Then we got to hear what the girls said, and I think everybody letting it out and hearing what each girl had to say helped a lot because our team is very honest, which is good because if someone holds it in, it doesn’t always end well. So when we all say it out loud, it’s getting the air cleared for everybody.”
Added Young: “We shared our visions for what we wanted this team to be and what we wanted this team to feel like for each individual player. Going past softball, we are young women, and there are a lot of different personalities that come with that. So we just had to talk about what we thought this team should look like and what we wanted to establish and what we wanted to represent together.”
The following day, the Bears defeated North Carolina Central, 5-2, to give Hineline the 100th victory of his coaching career with the program. They then won seven of the last 10 games of the regular season, a spurt that included an 11-2 thumping at Coppin State for the conference’s Northern Division title.
Morgan State has been led at the plate by sophomore third baseman Ellen Ebbers, who ranks fourth in the league in batting average (.349), and senior right fielder Aliya Ewell, who leads in runs scored (24). On the mound, Rundlett ranks second in total wins (nine) and strikeouts (71), while junior Mikayla Barnard (Marriotts Ridge) ranks thirdd in earned-run average (2.81).
The team has also been buoyed by a developing group of freshmen and sophomores, which includes Ebbers, sophomore reliever Melissa Paz (two saves) and freshman second baseman Mia Ewell, who will miss the remainder of the season after breaking the thumb on her throwing hand while fielding a ball.
“We’ve got some good recruits that I’m real proud of,” Hineline said. “This is Division I softball, and some of these kids are blue-collar players. They didn’t come in with a lot of fanfare, but they certainly can play, and we’re very pleased with them. All of them have contributed, and we use our roster. We’ve gone games where we’ve rolled through a lot of people with pinch hitters and pinch runners in situations depending on the kind of game. We’ve played 20 players in a game. It gives the umpire fits, but we certainly like to use our players. They’re there for a reason.”
The Bears have not played since May 5, giving the players their longest break of the season outside of the university-mandated pause in February. Rundlett said players have taken advantage of the time off to heal their bodies and work on their skills.
“We’re working on the things we have to work on and the things that we messed up on or didn’t do so well,” she said. “I definitely think that the break has been good for us because it’s getting us ready for the MEAC.”
Although the 2018 squad collected the conference’s Northern Division championship, it faltered in the tournament, which was won by Bethune-Cookman. Hineline said the current group would love nothing more than to make history and earn a spot in the NCAA softball regionals.
“Whether we win it or not, that depends on a lot of things, and the teams that are in it are pretty good,” he said. “So losing to one or two of them wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it certainly would be a major disappointment. We’ve beaten some good teams, and we’re like, ‘Hey, we deserve to be in NCAA tournament.’ We really think we deserve a shot to be there. So I think that’s the mindset of these young ladies.”
MEAC softball tournament
MORGAN STATE VS. NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL
At Norfolk, Virginia
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Thursday, 3 p.m.