In a see-saw year, the Brenau Golden Tigers softball team entered the 2012 season as No. 5 in the nation, fell to 16th by the end of regularly scheduled play despite top pitching and defense, then knocked off a couple of top-ranked teams to make the Final Four in the championship tournament, and finished as the nation’s No. 4 team – the highest position ever for the Brenau squad.
The Tigers finished the season 44-16, the most successful season for the Brenau intercollegiate softball program.
“Of all my years of coaching, this season is the most memorable,” said Tigers Head Coach Devon Thomas. “We battled through ups and downs throughout the year, but never lost focus on our goal to reach the National Championship tournament.”
The team, which played in only one other National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship series in 2009, set as its preseason goal playing in the 2012 title game, but fell just one run short.
It made it to the Final Four in the Gulf Shores, Ala., tournament after a 5-0 sweep that included knocking off then-No.1-ranked Concordia University 2-0 in an eight-inning pitching duel May 19. The team moved from the Elite Eight in championship play to the final rounds after an 8-4 shellacking of No.4-ranked Central Baptist.
In their five-game streak The Tigers recorded their third straight shutout of the series with a 5-0 win over Auburn University-Montgomery. The winning pitcher was sophomore Jenny Shepherd (16-6) from Martinez, Ga., who won two of the three games she pitched in the tournament.
In the first round of Final Four play, Brenau faced the only other unbeaten team in the tournament, Southern States Athletic Conference rival Shorter University, a team the Tigers had defeated twice in the five games they played earlier this year. Shorter won 5-2, sending Brenau to the second round of double elimination play against Oklahoma City University.
A victory in that game would have put Brenau back into a final match up with Shorter, but after jumping out to a one-run lead over OCU in the first inning and holding on to the sixth inning, the Tigers gave up a two-run double. After its loss to No. 1 Shorter, OCU ranked No. 2 in the final NAIA coaches’ poll. Although Cal State San Marcos also lost to Shorter and OCU, with the team’s 55-6 record it out-polled Brenau for the No. 3 spot in the coaches’ final 2012 scoring.
“A third-place finish in the national championship tournament losing only to the national champion and the runner up is not a bad way to end a season,” said Tigers Coach Thomas. “I’m proud of every member of this team, and would like to thank the administration, boosters and community for all of their support throughout our historical championship run.”
Thomas has reason to end 2012 on an optimistic note. Although he loses six seniors, Thomas’s 2013 team will include among returnees the NAIA All-Tournament Team members Anna Maness, a junior from Seagrove, N.C., and Tiffany Schandera, a junior from Columbus, Ga.
“Both players had outstanding tournaments and both will help lead the team to back to the tournament next year,” said Thomas, who has also recruited six talented freshmen for the 2013 Tigers.
Maness (22-10), an All-American selection in 2011, was Divisional Pitcher of the Year and SSAC first-team All-Conference. In a three-win tournament performance, Maness threw two of the three back-to-back shutouts the Tigers delivered in the tournament and pitched in five of the seven games, counting a two-inning relief appearance in the Shorter game. In the final game, she held OCU scoreless through five innings in the final game. Maness and senior infielder Brooke Bryant from Royston, Ga., also were named NAIA Scholar-Athletes.
Schandera, at third base and batting in the lead-off position following her 2011 NAIA first-team All-America selection and SSAC Player of the Year award, was also named first team All-Conference. Schandera and Maness both were picked on the Louisville Slugger All-Region team.
Despite an uneven won-loss record, the Tigers went to the tournament as No. 1 in defense with a .977 fielding percentage. The Tigers’ pitching staff was No. 8 in the country with a 1.41 earned run average. The year-end national statistical rankings for the team include No. 3 in fielding (0.975), No. 6 in ERA (1.380) and No. 9 in both total batters struck out (388) and opponents’ batting average (0.192). In the season, Tigers starting pitchers completed 43 of the 60 games and also set school records for most strikeouts and best ERA. In the championship tournament the Tigers pitchers were No. 3 in total strikeouts with 43.
Offensively, The Tigers ranked only 24th nationally in total hits (478) and total runs scored (307) for the season, but in the tournament faced four All-America pitchers and beat three of them, including Concordia junior Katie Cotta, whose perfect game in the opening round of the tournament was one of four no-hitters she threw this season. In the tournament the Tigers placed No. 2 in runs scored with 31, No. 3 in home runs with three, and No. 5 in doubles with seven. Four Tigers had batting averages of .350 or better.
The 2012 season marked only the second appearance for the Golden Tigers in the national championship tournament. The Tigers won the SSAC conference championship in 2009 to earn a berth in Decatur, Ala., but they were eliminated by No.5-ranked William Carey to finish that season as No. 12.
“There is no doubt in any region of the country that the Golden Tigers are a national championship-caliber team” said Brenau Athletics Director Mike Lochstampfor. “They will set high expectations for next season because that is what champions do.”