Experiences, Challenges, Bulldog Mentalities Push SEMO In Historic Season
For Southeast Missouri, the possibilities of a dream season began at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
The Redhawks, fresh off a 33-win 2018 season that marked their best win total in 20 years, returned a core group of talent in 2019 that included six of the top seven hitters and the team’s top ERA pitcher.
SEMO’s experience manifested into the triple play that most mid-major softball programs hope to achieve – regular season conference champions, conference tournament champions and an NCAA Tournament berth.
"We are always striving to be better than we were the year before,” SEMO Head Coach Mark Redburn said. “That was our goal, and I really thought we had a good chance with everyone that was coming back to be as good, if not better, than what we were last year. I
thought we could be in contention for a conference title, but I did not know that it would be in a 45-win season."
After securing the conference title and the automatic bid with an Ohio Valley Conference tournament title, SEMO (45-16) clinched its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1999. The Redhawks travel to the Oxford Regional and face Louisiana (50-4) in the opening game.
SEMO enters the Regional well tested and familiar with high-pressure elimination games that so many teams must endure in the NCAA Tournament. After dropping a winner’s bracket final to perennial OVC power Jacksonville State in the conference tournament, SEMO staved off elimination with an 11-8 win over Eastern Kentucky. The win set up the challenge for SEMO: win two games over Jacksonville State, the regular season co-champion that had won all three conference tournaments since it moved near JSU’s campus in 2016.
With odds stacked against them, Redburn ensured his team that it was capable of taking the title. In the regular season, SEMO split a two-game series at Jacksonville State. In the winner’s bracket final, it had the tying or winning run at the plate in the final three innings. He knew the Redhawks could overcome.
“Our players knew we were right there. We just needed a big base hit in that game. Going in to the next day, we just took it one game at a time. To come out like we did, play some short game and put some runs on the board – then to get (OVC Pitcher of the Year)
Faith Sims out of the game – our confidence grew even stronger."
With 8-2 and 6-5 wins, SEMO secured its second ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
In Redburn’s fifth season at the helm, the Redhawks have rewritten the program record book on the path to the NCAA Tournament. The team has set 12 new records through 61 games, which includes new program highs for wins, hits, runs scored and home runs. To add to those records, Redburn earned OVC Coach of the Year honors while Rachel Anderson took home OVC Player of the Year.
Anderson, a junior outfielder, enters Regional play as one of the top hitters in the nation. Her .455 batting average registers sixth nationwide, while her 80 hits is tied for fifth best nationwide. Anderson has the most hits of any player on the field and sits three
hits behind the current single-season NCAA leader.
Redburn credits Anderson’s work ethic and determination as qualities that have created this formidable bat.
"You talk about program growth. Rachel came in here on day one as freshman and practiced every single day the way she plays the game. That is what I think has made the difference for her. Athletes like her go about their business every single day, whether it is
practice or a game. Other players have seen it, fed off of it and learned how to become that as well. The work ethic that she had produced – everyone sees her outcomes and thinks that that is what they need to do every day."
In the circle, senior Haley Thogmartin leads the charge for the Redhawks. Finishing the regular season with a conference-best 1.75 ERA and a 22-6 record, Thogmartin became the first single-season 20-win pitcher in SEMO’s Division I era.
"You can look at some pitchers and just tell they are bulldogs. They are going to get out there and sweat it out,” Redburn said. “Haley does not necessarily present that image, but she really is a bulldog in her heart. She wants the ball. She does not want to let
her teammates down.”
That bulldog mentality has pushed Thogmartin and the Redhawks all season. SEMO notched 16 road wins, one of only nine programs to win 16 or more games on the road. The Redhawks are one of nine teams in the country with 45 or more wins on the season, too.
Only three other teams in the country boast 16 or more road wins and 45 or more wins – No. 1 overall seed Oklahoma, ACC regular season champion Virginia Tech and Sun Belt champion Louisiana.
The Ragin’ Cajuns and Redhawks square off Friday.
Louisiana has shined at the plate, bolstering one of the best offenses this season. The Ragin’ Cajuns rank fifth nationwide in team batting average (.338) and seventh nationwide in runs per game (6.98). That potent offense can seem daunting, but Redburn believes his
team is prepared for two reasons – game philosophy and experience.
"My coaching philosophy from day one has been to play against the game and compete against the game with scenarios and situations. Those things never change. Now, pitching velocity might be a bit higher, break and movement might be a bit better and power might
be a bit better, but you are still swinging at strikes and looking at balls. We go about our approach by playing against the game. We try not to get too caught up in who we are playing."
While Redburn encourages his team to not consider the name on the opponent’s jersey, he does see the value in challenging the Redhawks with more of those top teams. Redburn scheduled six high-major games in 2019 and went 3-3, splitting at Arkansas, winning two at
Kansas and losing two at Missouri.
"That's why we schedule those games. The more times you play in those settings, the less frightening it becomes. You become more entrenched to it,” Redburn said.
The Redhawks face a tough challenge in the Oxford Regional, but the Ohio Valley Conference has seen recent success in Regional action. In every NCAA Tournament since 2015, the Ohio Valley Conference representative has garnered at least one win. In 2016 and 2018, Jacksonville State reached the Regional Final after winning two games in each.
Redburn recognizes that this experience is new for his players. He wants them to embrace all that comes with making a Regional, but he knows they can make some noise, too.
"We don't have as much room for error and may not be as deep as some of those programs, but if we play solid in the four phases of the game, we think we can give ourselves a good chance."