The story of the underdog has always been adored by the world and is constantly a major focus in Hollywood. Whether the underdog wins it all or falls short of the ultimate goal, the story becomes a legend.
In 1982, Griffon softball wrote their own underdog story, eventually leading to a NAIA national championship victory.
Western began their historic year with six straight losses, leaving the team to think that there was not much hope left in the season.
With the team down after the losing streak, then head coach Rhesa Sumrell said something to the team that may have contributed to their turnaround season, according to former Griffon pitcher Wonda Berry.
“I remember the coach telling us you have got to love to play and you all love to play the game, so you just need to play your game,” Berry said. “Then we got on a win and we just kept going and we were like gosh let’s see how far we can carry this through.”
After the slow start the Griffons entered a hot streak and would carry their momentum into the NAIA District 16 tournament. They appeared unbeatable as they defeated Southwest Baptist 2-1 and William Woods twice by a score of 2-1 to win the District championship.
Even though there was a slow start at the beginning of the season, Berry explains that everything started coming together during Districts and beyond.
“It almost became a game of we can’t lose,” Berry said. “We just really started hitting and everything just came together, and it all came together at the right time too.”
Winning their district qualified the Griffons to take their 24-14 record and go to Kearney, Nebraska for their first NAIA National Tournament.
Unfortunately for Western, their time to shine on the national stage would be delayed by heavy rainfall.
Although the rain hampered the tournament, Berry says that the Griffons had no trouble keeping their spirits up.
“We had a pitcher in a dance class and she brought her tap shoes and would go into the bathroom on the tile and would tap all night long, we were like oh my gosh,” Berry said. “I remember Deena Murphy getting in a little helicopter for a kid and we kept putting quarters in and she was going up and down in the helicopter. It’s just little things like that where we really enjoyed what we were doing.”
When the team wasn’t busy dancing or riding children’s toys, Berry explained that they would take grounders and practice on an asphalt road because the fields were too muddy to play on.
Finally, the rain cleared and it was time for Western to continue down their road of success.
The delays did not seem to have any effect on the Griffons during round one of the tournament. They dismantled Salem out of West Virginia by a score of 12-1.
Western would not stop there as they would go on to win their next three games, defeating Wisconsin Parkside 1-0, St. Mary’s 4-3 and Oklahoma Baptist 2-0. The four game win streak was exactly what the Griffons needed to land them in the championship game of the tournament.
With goose bumps and tears in her eyes Berry explained that only during Western’s four game win streak did it occur to the rest of the team that they have a shot at the national title.
“We were just like oh my gosh we could win this,” Berry said. “When we just kept winning and we hadn’t lost yet I remember Brad, the coach at Kearney, saying I hope when Western loses they remember big girls don’t cry. I think when we saw that comment in the paper, we were like let’s win this thing, lets prove who we are and win this thing.”
Rain once again delayed the final games of the tournament but would let up just long enough for the Griffons to face St. Francis for the title.
Instead of having an epic down to the wire game, Western quickly dispatched St. Francis by a score of 5-0 clinching their historic national championship.
Winning that game created a wave of shock throughout the whole team according to Berry.
“We were just like we did it, we really just did this,” Berry said. “It’s almost like you’re sitting here and you’re watching it happen but it’s so unbelievable, it’s like we’re the champs, we’re number one.”
That season not only brought a national championship to the team but it also lead to many members of the team being recognized for their great year including, Berry receiving Honorable Mention All-CSIC pitcher and Sumrell being named NAIA coach of the year.
The 1982 NAIA National Champion Griffons prove that successful underdog stories are not only on the big screen. Their miraculous season will forever be a major part of Missouri Western history.