One day after beating No. 24 UNC 3-1 in softball, N.C. Central coach Vashion Johnson was still floating on cloud nine.
His Eagles (21-24) on Tuesday traveled nine miles to Chapel Hill for the win, but now it’s time for Johnson and his team to reshift their focus.
The MEAC tournament starts for NCCU on Wednesday, when it takes on No. 2 seed Howard in Ormond Beach, Fla. Before that, though, the Eagles will take a few days off and return to practice this weekend. But Johnson wants them to soak in their success before they get back to work.
“I need them to enjoy this moment right now,” Johnson said, “and try to replicate that down at the MEAC tournament.”
NCCU went 10-5 in the MEAC this year and are on a four-game winning streak. The Eagles rolled into Chapel Hill after a three-game sweep in a weekend series over rival A&T, and felt good going into the game against the Tar Heels.
Junior Dalika Wallace said the team went into the contest with plenty of confidence against nationally ranked UNC. After three scoreless innings, the Eagles exploded for three runs in the top of the fourth thanks to a two-run single by sophomore outfielder Jessica Powell and a single from freshman catcher Madison Mifsud. The Tar Heels scored in the bottom of the seventh and had the tying runs on base, but sophomore pitcher Kiara Hurley kept UNC off the board. Wallace said her role during that tense moment was keeping everyone focused.
“I just kept talking to them, locked in,” Wallace said. “My job was to keep everybody focused. Make good plays, dives, layouts, everything. Hyping myself up.”
Johnson said his team wanted to be in that moment and they learned from a similar situation against N.C. State on April 27. The Wolfpack won 1-0, and the Eagles kept nine runners on base and outhit N.C. State 7-3, but still came up empty.
That fueled the team to make sure they wouldn’t come up empty handed if they found themselves in a position again for an upset.
“We do a good job looking at the last game we played and making adjustments with that,” Johnson said. “The last couple of innings were a big pressure moment for us and those last couple of innings we embraced the pressure. We wanted to be in that moment and we felt like we could make it through this time.”
Johnson wouldn’t say the upset was a program defining win for the Eagles in the Division I era, but did call it a statement victory.
The 21-wins are the most as a Division I team for NCCU. Johnson hopes it’s just the beginning.
“We’re trying to build something here,” Johnson said. “A lot of programs have a lot of ups and downs. We want to continue to not just have this one win, we want it to carry over and pull off a couple of other wins and have teams a little hesitant to schedule us because they know we bring the fight.”
The attention that comes with a win like this means the Eagles won’t be able to sneak up on any teams once they travel to Florida next week for the league tournament. But that’s the price that comes with winning. Johnson welcomes the challenge next week.
“We’re going to walk into the MEAC tournament with a bunch of swag, people are going to notice,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to fly under the radar, people are going to pay attention. That means we have to work twice as hard.”