Morgan State’s 2021 softball season seemed like it would never start. Now the Bears are one of just 64 teams still playing as the NCAA softball tournament opens May 21.
UMBC is in the championships, too, in what is becoming somewhat of a trend for third-year coach Chris Kuhlmeyer, taking his second Retrievers squad to regionals. Part of their story, though, is where the regional is being played: In Tuscon, Ariz., just two hours from shortstop Maddie Daigneau’s home in New River, Ariz.
Daigneau isn’t the biggest star on Kuhlmeyer’s team but the coach said she’s “the heart and soul” of the 25-11 Retrievers. The America East champs will face off against No. 11 overall seed Arizona at 8:30 p.m. May 21. MEAC champion Morgan State (24-15) opens at No. 1 seed Oklahoma in Norman, also at 8:30, and also a daunting task.
“I know they’re No. 1, but we’re going in there with a clear head and the feeling that we can beat anybody,” Bears all-conference catcher Haylee Bobos said. “We’re definitely going to go and show them what we’ve got.”
What Morgan State has is its first MEAC softball championship trophy ever and nine wins in its last 11 games as the veteran team gelled down the stretch.
“We had three girls who were seniors last year come back because they didn’t like the season being cut short, and they were on a mission,” Morgan State coach Larry Hineline said. “I think the energy from them fed the rest of the team. They saw we had a chance to win something, and they came through.”
Those super seniors were Bobos, all-conference pitcher Stephanie Rundlett and versatile infielder Damishah Charles. Bobos, a 2017 transfer from Division II Georgian Court University in New Jersey, leads the team in home runs (4), RBIs (21), walks (23) and in truths told.
“Haylee’s intense,” Hineline joked. “She doesn’t have a problem speaking her mind, telling her teammates to do this and that, and to shape up. Hey, it works. Her personality makes her a leader and she really knows the game. I don’t dwell on stats, but she has pop in her bat and she’s always on base.”
Bobos’ travel ball coach back home in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., had played fast-pitch men’s softball with Hineline and he put in a word with the coach. She visited Morgan State on Thanksgiving break of her freshman year and transferred that spring.
“I just loved it here,” she said.
Hineline loved the leadership Bobos and Co. provided the Bears. The team seemed to be in hibernation much of this school year. Morgan State didn’t play in the fall and then was scheduled to start Feb. 13, but COVID protocols kept them sleeping until March 10. Fifteen consecutive games were canceled or postponed.
“We had a doubleheader against Kutztown and then we started conference play,” Bobos said. “That was it. We just wanted to play ball. I was over the moon when I found out we were going to get an extra year. I was ready to enjoy the ride. Our main focus was to get our younger players to buy into our goals and our mentality here. I think it worked out pretty well.”
Bobos deferred applying to medical school with the chance to keep playing softball this spring.
“Playing softball and making it to the Division I level was mine and my dad’s goal,” she said. “Ever since he passed away [in 2018], I knew I had to finish it and not go out the way we went out last year.”
Bobos has another semester to complete her master’s degree in bioinformatics, and she’s looking at numerous opportunities in that field, which again, may move medical school down in her personal batting order. Bioinformatics involves the coding of DNA, and Bobos has already spliced her competitive DNA into the Bears’ softball program.
“She leads by example,” said Hineline, the MEAC Coach of the Year. “The first couple of years I was on her big time. She turned into a real student of the game. She paid attention and at practices she shows the younger players how to do things. She knows what I expect, and she bought into it.”
The Retrievers also bought into what Kuhlmeyer was selling in Catonsville, Md., particularly Daigneau, who anchors the defense and is second on the team with a .348 batting average and leads in runs (31), hits (39), triples (4) and steals (17). She has just five strikeouts in 116 plate appearances.
“Maddie Daigneau, since she has been here, has been a spark plug for this team at the top of the lineup,” Kuhlmeyer said. She’s the table-setter and a kid that has been the heart and soul of this program for a long time. For her, going out like this, being able to play in Arizona, is special. I couldn’t be happier for her.”
How do you get to go play back at home against the top team in your home state? Cactus. Cactus. Cactus. Seriously, Daigneau is so much like another coach on the field, next year she’s going to be a coach on the field, joining the UMBC staff as a volunteer assistant.
Kuhlmeyer said he noticed her when he would get caught up throwing batting practice. Daigneau picked up the slack, positioning fielders, giving tips to the hitters.
“She’s just a good leader and knows the game inside and out,” Kuhlmeyer said. “She just wants to do whatever it takes to help her teammates.”
About a month ago on a bus trip back home to Catonsville, Daigneau told Kuhlmeyer she might have a chance to join a Division II coaching staff next season. Kuhlmeyer had other ideas, already aware of what she brought to his team.
“We talked for a couple of weeks and then on her Senior Day, she said, ‘I’m coming back,'” Kuhlmeyer recalled.
He and younger, admiring teammates were ecstatic at the news. Coaching can wait, though. First things first and the next thing is a trip home. When UMBC popped up on the bracket line with Arizona, Daigneau had a moment.
“That was the most amazing feeling, I literally started crying,” Daigneau said. “Being able to go back home where I started softball in one of my last tournaments is just the greatest feeling. I get to have people that have helped me and trained me to get to this point, and they’re able to come watch live with my family.”
Daigneau, who also lettered in badminton in high school, played in a tournament in Pennsylvania when she was a high schooler, and she felt drawn to the East Coast. UMBC was her last visit, and she loved the campus. Now she just can’t seem to leave, her career extended by the America East championship and then by staying on to coach next year.
Her mother and stepfather scrambled to get to see Daigneau in the 2020 NCAA Regionals at Oklahoma, driving 24 hours to Norman. This is easier, and likewise, the Retrievers should find it less difficult than their trip two years ago.
“It’s different this time around,” Khulmeyer said. “We got our first one out of the way. [In the 12-0 loss to No. 1 Oklahoma], it was our first night game, our first game with that big a crowd, being on TV. You don’t know what all that feels like until you experience it. We’ve got a lot of starters back, older and more mature. We won’t be intimidated.”
UMBC bounced back and dropped a tough, 2-0 elimination game to Notre Dame that year, and they’re riding some momentum this time around as they go west. The Retrievers have won eight of their last nine games and have two-time America East Pitcher of the Year Courtney Coppersmith, who won three complete games in the conference tournament, including the 1-0 title game win against Stony Brook. UMBC hasn’t backed down from anyone.
And at least one of their players is looking at this as a home game.