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Published: 5/20/2004

Falcons turn it on: BG flying high after MAC tournament

BOWLING GREEN - The names on the current roster for the Bowling Green State University softball team are no different than they were before the MAC Tournament a week ago.

The team itself? Different. Vastly different.

The Falcons spent much of this season riding a roller-coaster of wins and losses, trying desperately to prove they were one of the league s top teams. But with its season hanging in the balance, BG won five straight games to win the MAC Tournament and earn a berth in the NCAA regionals.

As a result, the Falcons (34-28) will face No. 20 Oregon State (40-26) at 10 a.m. in Ann Arbor.

BG is the sixth seed in the eight-team double-elimination tournament that includes four nationally ranked teams: No. 6 Michigan, No. 11 Tennessee, Oregon State and No. 24 Notre Dame. The winner earns one of eight berths to the NCAA Championships.

It will be the fourth NCAA regional appearance for BG, but the Falcons are 0-6 in previous attempts in 1982, 1988 and 1993. The latter two were after winning MAC regular-season crowns. In 1982, BG received a bid when there was no MAC softball.

“I think we hadn t played our best until this past weekend,” said sixth-year coach Leigh Ross-Shaw. “How hard we played last weekend can only carry over. We ve been waiting for this team to break out, and it s here now.”

The Falcons almost didn t get their chance in the MAC Tournament. They needed a Marshall loss on the final day of the regular season to claim the sixth and final seed. Anthony Wayne graduate Lindsay Heimrich said that feeling of having barely squeaked in may have affected BG in its first game.

“It was like we were barely getting in there, so we were fortunate to be there,” she said. “We wanted to show them that we belonged there. We had nothing to lose. Our attitude was to leave it all on the field, give it all we ve got and prove that we didn t just get lucky to get into the tournament.”

Heimrich is hitting .295. Her 13 doubles are second best on the team. She also has pitched in five games.

The Falcons lost to Western Michigan 6-0 in a disappointing performance.

“We weren t totally where we needed to be [entering the MAC Tournament],” said Jenifer Kernihan of Perrysburg. “I think [that loss] gave us a kick in the butt to realize that we might only have one more game. Our attitude was to just keep going.”

Kernihan is hitting .242 with 22 RBIs.

The team s top hitter is Gina Rango at .375, second best in the MAC. She has a team-leading nine home runs and 42 RBIs. Jeanine Baca is hitting .310 with 36 runs scored.

So following the loss, the team held what everyone described as a soul-searching meeting.

“I think at that point the girls decided they were done worrying about all the other dramatics,” Ross-Shaw said. “They were done worrying about whether they were playing. They decided to trust their teammates and their coaches. They decided to let all the bad stuff go and move on.”

Pitcher Jody Johnson said that team meeting allowed everyone vent their feelings.

Johnson is 14-9 with a 1.70 ERA. Liz Vrabel is 15-5 with a 1.42 ERA.

“Everybody was so frustrated,” she said. “We knew we had to turn it on right then because we didn t want our season to be over. So we decided that it wasn t going to be.”

Ross-Shaw said the change in her team was immediate and dramatic.

“Friday we came out against Central [Michigan] and had a really good feeling,” she said. “After we won that game, you could see other kids who maybe weren t key players all season long gain some confidence and think, I can have an impact here. ”

The Falcons knocked out the Chippewas, the MAC s regular-season champs, as well as second-seeded Kent State on Friday, then avenged their opening loss to Western Michigan by beating the Broncos Saturday.

On Sunday BG still needed two wins over Miami to claim the title. So the Falcons beat the RedHawks by scores of 1-0 and 4-3 to win the school s first-ever MAC Tournament crown.

“I think we proved so much to ourselves last weekend,” Ross-Shaw said. “We gained a little more confidence. We decided, You know what? We are a good team. Before we got to the tournament, we thought, Somebody must want us here. We don t know why. ”

“We re proud of what we did last weekend, but we know we re not done,” Heimrich said. “We want to go out there and show them it wasn t just one weekend where we got lucky.”

- JOHN WAGNER



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