By GREG KEIM
THE GOSHEN NEWS
When the Northridge High School girls softball team captured the state championship back on June, 11 1988 in a lot of ways it was an Elkhart County real-life version of the movie “Hoosiers.”
The unranked Raiders finished the regular season with a 12-8 record and not too many people, including the players themselves, expected Northridge to win the state title. The underdog Raiders, like in “Hoosiers” had to play much larger schools back in the days before the class system.
“There never really was a point during the season when we thought about winning state,” said the team’s pitching standout Annette (Evans) Webb. “We were just playing for the fun of it.”
“We had no expectations of winning state even when we were going to Indianapolis,” said Crystal (Bender) Christner who was a junior third baseman. “Our first game at state was against North Central, one of the largest schools in the state. We didn’t expect to win. We thought it was so cool that we were still playing ball after we were out of school.”
North Central back in 1988 had more students than there were people in the Middlebury community. Webb spun a two-hitter as the Raiders defeated North Central Friday night and then tossed a three-hit shutout of Eastern (Howard County) on Saturday morning to advance to the finale at night. Pitching her third complete game in less than 30 hours, Webb allowed 10 hits as the Raiders knocked off the defending state champion New Albany, 8-6, at the IUPUI Softball Complex in Indianapolis.
Webb was key in organizing a reunion for the team in honor of the 25th anniversary of their state title on Saturday at Maplecrest Country Club.
Webb, who finished the season with an impressive 17-6 record, a nifty 1.17 ERA and a noteworthy 191 strikeouts in 167 innings, doesn’t feel the team had any superstars.
“We were all equals. We had a lot of good players that just went about their business,” Webb said.
Coach Dave Willig recalled one moment during the season when he realized this could be a special group of young ladies.
“There was one day late in the season when things were not going right in practice,” he said. “It was hot and I told the girls let’s quit for the day. Two or three of them spoke up and said ‘we are not quitting when we are playing like this.’ That impressed me.”
One of the players — Crystal (Bender) Christner — remembered that day as well.
“We were not quitting,” she said. “We wanted to keep going. We loved playing the game.”
That kind of attitude was one of the reasons why the Raiders, who won eight straight games in the state tournament, proved the underdog role has been unfairly applied to them.
“We had some breaks go our way,” Webb said. “There were so many times one bounce of the ball could have changed the outcome.”
The tourney run began in the Concord sectional as the Raiders topped Elkhart Memorial 4-1 and Lakeland 12-4 to reach the championship against mighty Elkhart Central. The Blue Blazers were ranked No. 6 in the state.
The championship featured two of the finest pitchers in the area as Webb and Niki Williams of Central squared off.
Webb gave up four hits, striking out nine and walking one. Williams allowed four hits while fanning eight and walking one.
The game was scoreless until the top of the seventh when Central pushed across a solo run on an RBI single by Williams.
The bases were loaded with Raiders in the bottom of the seventh when sophomore Brenda (Helmuth) Solis came to the plate. She lifted a short fly ball to right and a Central player made a gallant effort before dropping the ball and allowing the tying and winning runs to score.
“The Central game was key for us,” said Tim Willig, the coach’s son who served as the team’s scorekeeper. “Brenda hit a two-strike pitch. If she hadn’t gotten that hit we would not be here today.”
Freshman center fielder Stacie Dempsey said, “The Central game was the most memorable one. I remember right before the sectional Brenda found a penny in the parking lot. It was heads up so she picked it up and it became our lucky charm.”
Another notable member of the Central pitching staff was Dawn (Hoover) Austin who is currently coaching at Concord.
The Raiders captured a regional title with wins over LaPorte 4-0 and No. 7 DeKalb 4-2 at Twin Branch Park in Mishawaka.
Webb, the team’s lone senior, missed her commencement ceremony, while pitching the Raiders to the regional title.
Dempsey also talked about her coach.
“Looking back I have to compliment him. As high school girls we gave him a hard time. But he was excellent to play for. He got his point across and taught us well. We were just a bunch of kids doing what he asked.”
Team chemistry was one of the winning factors for the group.
“One of the biggest things I remember was how well we got along,” said freshman catcher Angie (Yoder) Moore. “We took things seriously, but we also out there to have fun. We played the game we loved to play.”
Junior shortstop Stephanie (Yoder) Gust also felt team chemistry was key.
“We all got along like family,” she said.
“We all fit together. When one of us was down another one of us would pick them up. I don’t think you see as much of that today. There is more talent out there, but I don’t see the desire or the motivation we had.”
Moore shared what it was like to catch the senior Webb.
“Catching Annette was awesome,” Moore said.
“She made my job easy. All I had to do was put my glove where we wanted the pitch and she hit the target. It was a privilege to catch her.”
Stephanie (Yoder) Gust was a junior shortstop for the Raiders.
“Winning state was the most memorable time of my life,” she said. “Parts of it are so vivid it seems like they happened yesterday.
“Playing on the team with Annette was awesome, but she kept us on our toes. The infielders had to be ready. As hard as she threw when a batter found their groove the ball came out hard so we had to be ready.”
Other members of the team were Tammy (Raymond) Schultheis, Stephanie (Callihan) Gessinger, Julie (Miller) MCatee, Moncia (Miller) Ervin, Tanya (Koontz) Orbaugh and Dawn (Seabolt) Franks.
Gordon Kauffman was an assistant coach and Linda Kaminskis the athletic trainer.
One teammate — Shelly (Riegsecker) Watts — has passed away and the team is starting a memorial scholarship in her honor.
“Shelly never struck out that season,” Webb said. “In tribute to her the scholarship will go to a senior member of the softball team who has the least amount of strikeouts.”
Watts was represented at the reunion by her daughters: Karli and Kassi.