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Cody Nespor: The Hawks can party like it's 1994

May 15—The last time the University softball team made it to the state tournament, none of its players were born yet.

Heck, I wasn't even born yet.

The Hawks haven't been to the big dance since 1994.

Needless to say, nobody on the team was quite sure how to react when the Hawks clinched the Region I championship with a 5-1 win over Morgantown on Tuesday.

"I don't know (how to feel) yet, " UHS coach Mindy Parks said amidst the celebrating. "I'll let you know when we get back. It feels great right now. I hope we can have a good showing ; I'm really excited."

As fate would have it, one of the assistant coaches from that 1994 UHS team was in the opposing dugout on Tuesday—MHS head coach Lorri Lipscomb. It was nearly a full-circle moment for Lipscomb had her Mohigans been the ones to make it to the tournament.

"It doesn't feel good being on this side of it, " she joked. "Full circle would've been me winning. Ironic, this would be ironic."

Softball was still in its infancy in this part of the state when Lipscomb and the Hawks went to the tournament in 1994. Like Parks and today's players, they weren't quite sure how to act back then.

"I think back then, because softball was so new, you didn't know what to expect, " Lipscomb said. "If memory serves me, I think we went up there and got our butts kicked pretty easily, but softball was just starting here and you're talking about (facing) teams that have been playing for years.

"It was a good lesson learned and it's a hard road to get to softball because they only take four (teams)."

No Morgantown-area team has been back to the tournament since then, as John Marshall has dominated the region for quite a while. Clay-Battelle has represented Mon County a couple of times, however.

The difference this year was belief. University made it to the regional series last year with a very-young roster and lost to the eventual-state-champion Monarchs. Most of that team returned this year with the knowledge and confidence they can make a playoff run.

"This group I really believe is just believing in themselves, " Parks said.

It's not just the girls on the team who are believing in themselves—others have seen what is happening, too. One of University's greatest strengths this season has been its depth, which Parks attributes simply to the fact more girls have come out for the team.

"Whether the girls know it or not, when you're able to have those pinch runners and pinch hitters and I can pull kids off the bench who get the job done, that's really important, " she said. "I haven't had that in a few years."

UHS lost starting catcher Olivia Masoner to an injury just before the playoffs began, but freshman Josalyn Phillips was able to step in and has been maybe the Hawks' top postseason hitter. Two other starters were in and out of the lineup during the section tournament, but Parks had girls who were ready to step in.

It's not just injury replacements either. Having enough girls to have courtesy runners, pinch hitters and flex players all add up over the course of the season.

"The bench is always important to have, " Parks said. "Josalyn is an example of having a bench. Her just coming in and filling those big shoes has been huge for her."

Beyond breaking the three-decade state tournament drought, that is maybe the most-important aspect of what has happened this season. It's one thing for a group of girls to have a good season or two—it's another to actively be growing the sport in the schools and community.

And let's not forget the other team in all this, Morgantown. After watching the regional series, there's no doubt in my mind that the cross-town rivals are two of the best softball teams in the state. The only reason both aren't going to the tournament is because only one team can make it out of each region.

Even though they aren't the ones heading to Charleston, the Mohigans still accomplished plenty this year. After years of not being able to get past John Marshall in the playoffs, MHS beat the Monarchs three times in seven days to claim the OVAC 5A championship and win the Section 1 tournament.

"That senior group has helped elevate the program to where it is, " Lipscomb said. "They've accomplished a lot of things that have never been accomplished before for this program. That's something to be proud of."

And just like the Hawks, Morgantown's roster is full of underclassmen who have obvious talent and love for the game. This year doesn't feel like it'll be just a flash in the pan for either team.

"It could become the classic matchup, " Lipscomb said. "We just wish it went our way, but obviously we wish them luck."

But that's all talk for the future. In the present, University still has games to play and has as good of a chance to bring home a state title as anyone.

So before we start dreaming up what can be, let's take the time to celebrate these girls right now.

"It feels really good knowing it's the first time in 30 years, " said UHS sophomore Sophia Lehosit, who was born well, well after that 1994 season. "I feel like we're really making history, I guess. It's kind of cringey to say, but I'm really proud of every single person on this team."

It's not cringey at all. It's the truth.

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