For St. Augustine’s men’s and women’s track & field teams, winning conference championships is nothing new.
Both teams are routinely dominant, with the men winning their 18th consecutive indoor and outdoor conference championship this year and the women claiming their 14th in 19 years.
The experience is much different for the Falcons’ softball team.
The past couple of days after their signature win have been like no other, said senior catcher Jo’Landa White and sophomore second baseman and pitcher Meranda Zanni, the tournament MVP.
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The Falcons beat Chowan University 8-2 for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Championship (CIAA), their first conference title since 1991. And with that they earned their first trip to the NCAA Division II tournament.
“Everybody has been talking to us,” White said. “People we’ve never seen – professors I’ve never talked to or knew – have been saying stuff to us. And practices have been very laid back.”
Zanni was pitching and White was behind the plate catching during the last inning of their clinching win. With one out to go and two runners on, White called a rise ball inside, one of Zanni’s best pitches.
When she threw it, it looked good.
“The moment I released it, I was thinking ‘strike,’” Zanni said. “Then she hit it.”
The ball sailed into left field. The left fielder got under the ball and caught it for the last out. The team rushed the mound.
“We were just happy, because we haven’t won it in 24 years, so we were jumping for joy,” White said.
Next up is the NCAA Division II tournament. The Falcons (22-13) are seeded No. 8 and travel to Pennsylvania to face top seed California (Pa.) in a first-round game at 1 p.m. Saturday.
But that wasn’t their focus Wednesday. The school held a pep rally for the softball team to celebrate its conference championship. The players and coaches signed pictures for their fans and fellow students, and they took selfies with each other and the championship trophy.
Wearing pink jerseys for breast cancer awareness, they chanted “Falcon! Pride!”
The university’s president danced to music in the background, while onlookers laughed and joined in.
“I’m so proud of them,” school President Everett Ward said. “They have worked extremely hard, and they are outstanding scholars in the classroom and just exceptional athletes on the field. But they represent the highest ideal of our athletic program here at Saint Augustine’s. They are exceptional young women who have a strong commitment to their athletic development but also to their intellectual development.”
The Falcons were consistent throughout the year, finishing the regular season as co-champions of the Southern Division, also a first.
It has been an uphill climb. Coach Nikki Bynum Bumpass inherited a team that finished 5-26 in 2011.
“It’s been phenomenal, and I wouldn’t do it with any another group of girls,” Bumpass said. “These girls are awesome. They take every challenge and they excel. But it’s been amazing.”