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College softball: Pair of locals helps lead Millikin to Division III World Series

One thing Sterling native Gretchen Gould and Morrison native Katie Tenboer have had a lot of in their softball careers is winning.

The 2022 season at Millikin University was no exception for the two standouts from northwest Illinois.

Gould, a junior first baseman, and Tenboer, the co-head coach, helped lead Millikin to the NCAA Division III World Series for the first time in program history last month. The Big Blue set a school record with 37 wins, and won the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin regular-season title for the second straight season.

For Tenboer, a 2007 Morrison High School graduate who played D-III softball at Central College in Pella, Iowa, the trip to Salem, Virginia for the championships was a long time coming.

“The last 15 years, I’ve been dreaming of Salem,” Tenboer said. “When I went to college in the fall of ‘07, the first thing I heard about was Salem; making it to the national tournament, that’s always the goal, and it took 15 years for me to finally reach it.

“There was so much anticipation for me personally, and it was fun to see THE Salem, the place we talked about day after day, year after year.”

Millikin softball coach Katie Tenboer claps during a game at the NCAA Division III World Series. Tenboer, a Morrison native, led the Big Blue to the D-III championships for the first time in program history.

Millikin softball coach Katie Tenboer claps during a game at the NCAA Division III World Series. Tenboer, a Morrison native, led the Big Blue to the D-III championships for the first time in program history. (Photos courtesy of Millikin Athletics/)

But more than the joy and excitement she felt, Tenboer said it was more pride and happiness for the players that went out on the field and got the job done.

“As a coach, you try to instill a vision in the players, and you’ve got to get a lot of people to buy into wanting to create a culture and believe in a vision they can’t tangibly see,” Tenboer said. “To get to see a group of people who believed in that, who had that blind faith and trust in us to put in the time and the work and believe what we were saying, it’s really great for that to be validated.

“This is something no Millikin softball team had accomplished before, and it was really special to watch all that time and work and investment in each other come to fruition for the players. They trusted us when we told them it would pay off, not knowing if it actually would happen, and they were focused and ready and dedicated to make it happen.”

Gould cited the team’s focus and determination as the key elements in the historical postseason run, and the special season in general that saw the Big Blue finish 37-9, including a 13-3 mark in the CCIW.

“We just set small goals throughout the year, starting with a conference title, then we started striving for regionals after that,” Gould said. “Honestly, I don’t think any of us really looked that far ahead; we were always just focusing on the week in front of us.

“Overall, the ultimate goal was to make it to the national tournament, but we knew if we just prepared for the games in front of us, that would take care of itself.”

Gould was a three-sport standout at Sterling, excelling in softball, basketball and volleyball. She was part of four straight regional titles in softball and a member of the first state championship volleyball team for the Golden Warriors in 2018.

She started her Millikin career as a third baseman, where she played in all 13 games as a freshman during the 2020 COVID season, hitting .381 with 12 RBIs. As a sophomore in 2021, she hit .283 with 22 RBIs in 43 games, earning second-team all-CCIW honors.

This season, she moved across the infield to first base, and started 44 of the Big Blue’s 46 games. She hit .313 with 16 RBIs, 18 runs, and five doubles, and she struck out only 12 times in 112 at-bats.

“I think for me, the biggest challenge was switching over to first base,” Gould said. “In travel ball and high school, I mostly played third base, so that was a big transition. Defensively, it’s a big change at this level; the girls are a lot quicker and more strategic with where they place the ball, and being more aware on defense was something I had to adjust to a lot in college.”

Millikin's Gretchen Gould hits the ball during the NCAA Division III World Series last month in Salem, Virginia. Gould, a Sterling native, helped the Big Blue advance to the D-III championships for the first time in program history.

Millikin’s Gretchen Gould hits the ball during the NCAA Division III World Series last month in Salem, Virginia. Gould, a Sterling native, helped the Big Blue advance to the D-III championships for the first time in program history. (Photos courtesy of Millikin Athletics/)

But the sales pitch Tenboer gave her during the recruiting process proved to be prophetic, and Gould is excited to have such success with a coach who hails from the same area as she does.

“When I originally visited Millikin, Coach Tenboer said we were going to go to nationals,” Gould said. “I was a junior in high school, and after playing on such a competitive high school team for a coach who sets really big goals for us, it was nice to transition to the collegiate level and have those same high expectations.

“It’s been a great experience here, and it’s really awesome that I got to play for a local coach. I love it at Millikin, both playing softball and the education I’m receiving.”

Tenboer, who was a pitcher and first baseman on the first Morrison team to make it to the state tournament in 2007, says Gould brings the perfect attitude and personality to the team.

“Her adaptability is such a plus for us as we move pieces around and find the right fit, and she’s just really grown over the past three years,” Tenboer said. “It’s been really fun to watch her and share with her, talk about our common background in greater northwest Illinois.

“She’s definitely a calming, mature influence, and provides a lot of the connection that brings people together. It’s been fun to watch her grow into that role, and her play on the field speaks for itself. It’s a true joy to be around her and have her in our program, and I have a lot of pride that she’s helping us write history at Millikin.”

Tenboer has helped shape the Big Blue program as well. She was named head coach in 2015, and has been the co-head coach with Whitney Sowers since 2018. She led Millikin to the CCIW regular-season title in 2017 with a 32-12 record, followed by records of 22-14 in 2018 and 26-12 in 2019.

In 2021, the Big Blue were 31-13 and won CCIW regular-season and tournament titles. They hosted an NCAA regional and finished the season ranked No. 20 in the country, helping to set the table for this spring.

Millikin softball coach Katie Tenboer talks to a baserunner during a game at the NCAA Division III World Series. Tenboer, a Morrison native, led the Big Blue to the D-III championships for the first time in program history.

Millikin softball coach Katie Tenboer talks to a baserunner during a game at the NCAA Division III World Series. Tenboer, a Morrison native, led the Big Blue to the D-III championships for the first time in program history. (Photos courtesy of Millikin Athletics/)

Both Tenboer and Gould believe the experience the players got playing in a regional last season helped this year when Millikin found itself in that position again.

“Being in the regional last year was extremely helpful for us,” Gould said. “We had a lot of girls returning this year, and we were a lot more comfortable playing in high-pressure games. We also knew that no matter who we played in the postseason, they were going to bring their best game and we were going to see everyone’s No. 1 pitcher, so we were prepared for things like that because of our experience last year.”

“You can talk about it all you want, but you can’t make up for it and create experience without going through it,” Tenboer said. “It certainly helped us, and the kids were excited to see that level of competition again. We had a little more of a calm, been-there feeling; we understood the process and how different the regional was than the regular season, and that showed in how we played.”

The Big Blue opened their regional with a 5-4 win over Ohio Northern University, then defeated Illinois College 7-0 and Alma College 8-1 to earn a trip to the super regional – which was right back at the Workman Family Softball Field in Decatur.

“We felt a lot more confident at our home field, and we were really excited when we found out we’d get to play there,” Gould said. “We got to sleep in our own beds, and playing on our home field, we were used to being on that turf, and we were comfortable with it. Plus, there were a lot of students there, and our families, since it was right at home, and I think it definitely helped us.”

Wartburg College visited for the super regional, and Millikin won the first two games in the best-of-three format – though it seemed to last much longer.

The Big Blue won 9-5 in the opener on Friday, May 20, watching a 4-0 lead turn into a 5-4 deficit before closer Charley Warlow shut Wartburg down for the final three innings as Millikin rallied.

The next day, Game 2 was moved up to 11 a.m. because of pending inclement weather. Both teams warmed up, the national anthem was played, the lineups were announced, and the first Millikin batter stepped up to the plate – but before the first pitch, there was a lightning delay.

The game resumed early in the afternoon, and the teams got four innings in before another delay. This time, the restart came around 6 p.m., and the teams got into the sixth inning before another delay.

The plan was to restart the game at 9 p.m., but around 8, the decision was made to finish it Sunday. It was over in short order Sunday morning, but the length and situation of the game was something neither Tenboer nor Gould had ever experienced before.

“The last pitch was about 24 hours after the game started, and the stop-and-go was just nerve-wracking,” Tenboer said. “You just don’t know how it’s going to turn out until that last pitch, and you just hope you’re putting the right pieces together and putting the players in position to be successful.”

“It was definitely a challenge,” Gould added. “We all tried to stay relaxed, and that helped us get through it. We stayed calm, we played with confidence, and we valued every at-bat and pitch, just kept trying to score runs. We knew Wartburg was a good offensive team, and it was a such a long game that if we lost focus, it could’ve gone the other way. We didn’t let that happen.”

Millikin's Gretchen Gould plays first base during the NCAA Division III World Series last month in Salem, Virginia. Gould, a Sterling native, helped the Big Blue advance to the D-III championships for the first time in program history.

Millikin’s Gretchen Gould plays first base during the NCAA Division III World Series last month in Salem, Virginia. Gould, a Sterling native, helped the Big Blue advance to the D-III championships for the first time in program history. (Photo courtesy of Millikin Athletics/)

Take away the delays, and the game was a good one. Millikin led 8-0 in the fifth and was three outs away from finishing it off by run-rule, then Wartburg scored five runs in the bottom of the fifth before the final delay Saturday night.

But the Big Blue pulled out a 10-6 win, and the celebration the team and its fans had been anticipating for 24 hours finally arrived.

Even in the postgame moments, Tenboer found herself reflecting a bit on the road that it took to get to Salem.

“After the initial celebration, Whitney and I just watched the excitement of the players and the fans, and our phones were just blowing up,” Tenboer said. “We both kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Wow!’

“We talk to the kids a lot about these things being all about the people. You experience these things with one another, and that’s the best part of it. To see these home fans so excited and rallying around this team, seeing the blind faith the players put in our vision pay off, that’s what’s special about it.”

Millikin lost its first two games at the D-III World Series, falling 6-5 to Salisbury University and 8-1 to Eastern Connecticut State. But that didn’t take away from the experience for Gould and her teammates.

“It was a really amazing trip, and just so cool for our team to come together and be able to enjoy that experience,” Gould said. “It was something that we were all working toward for so long that it almost didn’t feel real when we achieved it. But once we got there, all that went out the window and we were ready to compete again.”

As the new kids on the block at the national championships, there was the sense that the Big Blue needed to show what they had in order to prove they belonged with the best. The fact that they did that was what made their coach the proudest.

“It’s funny a little bit, because any team that’s new to the World Series wants to show people that we’re here for a reason, that it’s not a mistake or a fluke,” Tenboer said. “Even though our RPI was fifth in the nation and we showed throughout the year we’re very capable of making that run, you still want to prove yourself. But this team showed that Salem is where they belonged, and it was fun for them to feel that validation.

“And now that we’ve broken through and know how to make this happen, we want to keep doing it. I hope that we’re now a mainstay in that realm, and the girls know that they have to show up every day to prepare to make it back there.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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