The 2013 season marks the 25th anniversary of Northern Illinois softball's run to the Women's College World Series in 1988. We caught up with the head coach of that team, Dee Abrahamson, to get her best memories from that season.
Q: Heading into the 1988 season, did you think that this team could make a run at the Women's College World Series?
Dee Abrahamson: "Well, it was kind of a different time when I came to NIU. We were still playing under the AIAW system, since the NCAA didn't sponsor softball and wasn't doing women's sports, in general. We had been pretty successful going to regionals through the AIAW system. When the NCAA started championships in 1982, that changed the whole format of everything. It was different and it changed the whole power structure. Under the AIAW, the middle of the country was really the heart of softball. Illinois was really good. Northwestern was very successful. Western Illinois, Texas, Missouri, Iowa. The middle of the country was really the heart of softball. When the NCAA took over championships, it spread out a lot more, mainly on the west coast. The Pac-12 started putting more money into their programs to be competitive. More recently, the SEC has put more money into their programs to be competitive. It was just a different time. We were successful in the AIAW regionals, so when the NCAA took over, it was a different format, different time. We thought we were playing very well. We thought we had a good opportunity at regionals again, but when you get to that level, you have to be good and you have to be lucky. You have to get a hit at the right time. You have to get an out at the right time when the other team has the bases loaded. In regionals, we turned a triple play, which is not something you expect to happen, but it got us out of a huge jam. We were in a position where the people who were involved in that play could make it happen and we got ourselves out and hold onto our lead. So, if you did ask me at the beginning of the year if we would make it to the Women's College World Series...everybody's always hopeful, but realistically, no, we didn't think we were going to make it there. We did think that we were good enough to be in regionals. When you get to a four-team region - there were only 32 teams in the tournament, so you had to be in the top 32 - all four teams are going in thinking the same thing that 'Wow, we got a chance, now who is going to make it work.'"
Q: After notching a few big wins early in the year against Florida State, Northwestern and Western Illinois, when did the team believe that 1988 could be a special year?
DA: "I think it was the way they felt about each other. This particular group of people bonded really well and I think you need that. The people who were not playing as much, certainly not as much as they wanted to, were very supportive of the people who were playing. That's a special thing because it is hard to be selfless sometimes and realize that 'I would love to be out there, but this person is on a hitting streak or this person can run faster than I can, so they deserve to be in the lineup.' It was really that we felt that we were a really good, tight unit. When you feel like that, you feel a little more invincible where they can count on each other to find a way to get ourselves out of jams and be successful. After our Florida trip that year, we felt very good about that. Beating Northwestern, certainly at that time since they were a powerhouse in the country, just kind of added fuel to the fire that we could go a long way here if we stay healthy."
"We had two really key players in the mix. Beth Schrader was a very special pitcher at the time. She was going to be able to fight for us in the circle and make a huge difference for us on defense. On offense, we had Jill Justin who was an incredible hitter. She was one of the best hitters in the game. It was kind of unfortunate that there weren't Olympics around at the time. When she played in the summer, she played for arguably the best women's team in the country and most of those players, the younger ones, went on to be Olympians and were very fortunate. That's a great one-two punch. If you got a pitcher who can keep the other team from scoring and you got a hitter who can provide the offense on your side, you can win a lot of games."
Q: After coming from the brink of elimination and knocking off Illinois State with two wins in the regional final, what was the first thing that went through your mind when you realized "We're going to the WCWS"?
DA: "My thought was 'Wow, how are we going to do this?' We believed all along we had a chance. We got up that day; we were coming out of the loser's bracket, so we had to win two to knock them off. We talked on the bus about doing what it took for as long as it took and giving ourselves a chance to be there. When we actually got that final out, it's all the things going through your head like 'What next?' You want to be happy and you want to celebrate, but in my brain, it's thinking about 'Okay, now what are the next steps?' because we had never been there. So when am I going to get information about hotel and flights and I have to get a bus and a van and my mind was racing. I wanted to figure out the next step to make this an even better experience than we had at regionals. For the first hour or two, it was my mind racing about the things that needed to be done and the people I needed to talk to - the media folks, the people at home, our athletic director. All of those things, it wasn't until we were on the bus on the way back that I got to sit back and say 'Wow, that was amazing and hopefully we can make this next step amazing, too.' I should really ask some other people about what that's like, if they have the same thing that they can't get their mind to stop racing about all the next steps until they sit back."
Q: Your first opponent in the WCWS was UCLA, a team that had won three of the first six NCAA Division I softball national titles. Were there any nerves heading into that first game?
DA: "We knew that we were definitely the underdogs going in. We were not a big name school going in with a long tradition like other people did. That's kind of an NIU Athletics feeling anyway that, in most respects, we were an underdog. We kind of embraced that role of 'We know more about them than they know about us.' We just needed to take advantage of that. We had obviously seen them play, especially for me because I had worked the WCWS for so many years. I've seen UCLA play. I've seen how they coach. I've seen their players. They haven't seen us, that's for sure, so we might have a little advantage going in. They may be looking forward to the next team in their bracket and the tough team to beat and figure that they'll beat Northern Illinois. We were hoping to assume that role that NIU often assumes, which is fly under the radar and play hard and give yourself a chance to win. We did, but we didn't quite finish. We were in the game right to the end and had a chance. We just didn't get a hit where we needed it."
Q: Overall, what was your best memory from that year?
DA: "That's a really hard question because there were so many good ones. A lot of them happened on the field. Probably, the best one was seeing the joy on those kids' faces when they actually were able to do what they set out to do, which was play great softball. Just how happy everybody was. You work your tail off to do lots of things. Sometimes, when it works out for you, it's just incredibly happy. Just how happy they all were as a group and happy for each other."
"We had an amazingly tight team. We had a lot of good junior and senior leadership. I had a great assistant coach (Donna Martin) who had been with me for a long time. Everybody knew what their role was and did it. That's definitely a thing to celebrate when everybody knows what's needed and they get it done and it works in your favor."