Repeat Champs; Winning Season; Another Trip to the NCAA Championships

 “Last year we had a team that learned throughout the year how to win.  This year, we have a team that knows how to win.  Our goal this year is to play some great teams very good and to play some good teams great."

That was the quote that head softball coach Mike Tomlinson spoke at the beginning of the 2003 season.  Not only did his team achieve its goal, but it also proved they knew how to win – and kept on winning.

Oakland University’s softball team had perhaps its most prolific season in school history – winning its second consecutive Mid-Con Tournament title, taking a game at the NCAA Regional Championships and finishing with a record of 34-26-1; all in just its fourth year of existence.  And the honors didn’t stop there.

Four players were named first team All-Mid-Con while four others were named to the second team.  The Golden Grizzlies also swept the top individual awards, Pitcher of the Year, Player of the Year, and Co-Coach of the Year.  Senior third baseman Ericka Burns (Clinton, Ont.) was tabbed the Mid-Con’s best performer at the plate and in the field as she was named the conference’s Player of the Year and first team All-Mid-Con.  Burns, who finished the season with a .426 batting average, was also named Mid-Con Tournament MVP on her way to helping the Golden Grizzlies qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Sophomore standout pitcher Nicole Marzano (McHenry, Ill.) was titled Mid-Con’s Pitcher of the Year after going 12-5 on the mound and leading the league with a 1.30 ERA.  She joined Burns, as well as first baseman Jennifer Granger (Troy, Mich.) and outfielder Linnea Utecht (Oshkosh, Wis.) on the Mid-Con’s first team.  Receiving second team honors were second baseman Nina Catanzaro (Shelby Twp., Mich.), shortstop Erica Judge (Fort Collins, Colo.), catcher Megan Piar (Lancaster, Ohio) and pitcher Julie Anderson (Portland, Mich.).  Rounding out the honors was Tomlinson who, as a first-year head coach, was named Co-Coach of the Year for leading OU to post season play.

Oakland got the ball rolling down south as the team faced #24 Georgia Tech in the University of Florida’s Cox Communications Classic.  Anderson pitched all seven innings for the Grizzlies who slipped by the Yellow Jackets 1-0. 

Virginia Tech was the next big spring break victory for the Golden Grizzlies.  Oakland defeated the Hokies 6-4, in the Plant City Tournament in Florida.  OU finished off its tough early season schedule with a 5-16-1 mark, with all of its games being played away from home, before starting the conference season at Western Illinois.

Oakland would sweep the Westerwinds on the opening day by scores of 13-0 and 7-1.  However, Western Illinois would take one game against the Grizzlies on Saturday with a 4-3 victory before Oakland bounced back to take the final game in the series 5-0.  In their next conference match-up on the weekend of April 11-12, UMKC would travel to Rochester to face Oakland in its first home games of the season. 

In a match-up of the defending tournament champions and the defending regular season champions, the Golden Grizzlies had no trouble taking three-of-four from the Kangaroos.  As a tournament preview, Oakland took both games on the first day winning 1-0 and 5-0 before falling 2-1 on Saturday and then taking the last game 2-0 in eight innings.

Cedar City, Utah was the next conference venue on Oakland’s list.  Southern Utah entered the series 7-0 in conference play and undefeated in its last 11 games.  The Golden Grizzlies broke the winning streak, beating the Thunderbirds’ 3-1 in the opening game.  However, SUU battled back to take the second game 7-6 for the split.  The second day of the series was much the same as Southern Utah grabbed the first game with a 3-2 victory while Oakland thundered a 9-2 response in the second.  The series put Oakland’s conference record at 8-4 and placed them third overall in conference standings.

Before facing conference foes IUPUI and Valparaiso, Oakland would garner three big wins over Bowling Green and Michigan State.  On April 22nd, the Golden Grizzlies swept the Falcons 4-1 and 5-0.  In the second game, Marzano was on the mound and fired a no-hitter – the third of her career and team’s first of the season.  Still on a high from the previous day, Marzano pitched four innings against Michigan State for a 1-0 victory.  Marzano allowed just three hits before relief pitcher Anderson took the mound for the save allowing only two hits.

That Saturday and Sunday the team traveled to Indianapolis to face IUPUI in a two-day four-game Mid-Con series.  The Grizzlies were victims of a no-hitter in the first game, dropping a 2-0 decision before taking the next three 3-0, 5-0, and 3-1.  With the wins, Oakland’s conference record stood at 11-5 and the Grizzlies found themselves in second place in the league behind Southern Utah.

On May 2nd and 3rd the Grizzlies hosted their last set of conference games against Valparaiso.  The Golden Grizzlies had no trouble sweeping the Crusaders and improved their conference record to 15-5, finishing runner-up in the Mid-Con standings. 

As the team prepared for the conference tournament in Macomb, Illinois, they entered the weekend as the #2 seed behind Southern Utah.  Oakland would face Western Illinois in the first game on May 9th.

Against the host team, the Golden Grizzlies were unstoppable as they defeated the Westerwinds 7-4 in the opening game of the tournament.  Leading the Grizzlies to the win were Catanzaro and Utecht.  Catanzaro went three-for-four at the plate and scored twice while Utecht was three-for-three, scored once and drove in two.  Earning the win on the mound was Marzano who allowed one run off six hits. Next up for Oakland was UMKC – who had earlier defeated Southern Utah.  The two teams battled through nine innings with the Kangaroos coming out on top with the win, 3-2.  With the loss, the Grizzlies put themselves in a familiar situation at the Mid-Con Tournament.  If Oakland were to win the title, the team would have to win three consecutive times on Saturday.  And just that they did.

Southern Utah was first in the knock-out round of the losers bracket for Oakland and it defeated the T-Birds 3-1.  Eventual tournament MVP Burns went one-for-two at bat, scoring twice with two RBIs.  In the circle was Anderson who pitched all seven innings for the Golden Grizzlies giving up four hits, one run and one walk.

A repeat of last year’s tournament championship final, it was UMKC vs. Oakland in the second game of the day.  Since UMKC had yet to lose a game in the tournament, Oakland would have to defeat the Kangaroos twice in order to defend its title.  In the first game, it was once again Burns who would be hot at the plate for the Golden Grizzlies.  Burns tripled in the first inning and was then brought home by Utecht to give the Grizzlies a 1-0 lead.  Burns went on to bang our two more hits and drive in a pair of runs to help Oakland beat UMKC 4-0.

In the championship game of the Mid-Con Tournament, Oakland and UMKC squared off for the seventh time in the 2003 season.  The Grizzlies managed to defeat the Kangaroos 2-1, scoring early in the game and holding the lead to take the victory.  Steady on the mound was Anderson who pitched the entire game for OU, giving up just three hits, one run and one walk while fanning six.  As a result of their successes, five Grizzlies were named to the All-Tournament team.  Burns (also tabbed Tournament MVP), Anderson, Marzano, Piar, and Christina Schulte (Rochester, Mich.) were all given the honor.

Once again Oakland would represent the Mid-Continent Conference at the NCAA Regional Tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich. Entering as the number seven seed, the Golden Grizzlies braved nationally ranked #9 California, the defending national champions.  Anderson started in the circle for Oakland and gave up just one run in two innings.  But Cal, the eventual regional champ, went to collect 11 hits off of three Oakland hurlers as it went on to an 8-0, six-inning win over the Golden Grizzlies.

Oakland then faced intra-state rival Western Michigan in the losers bracket.  In order to stay alive in the tournament, the Golden Grizzlies needed to get the win against the Broncos.  In an intense battle, Oakland came out victorious, defeating Western Michigan 4-3 – beating them for the third time in 2003.  The Grizzlies were down 3-2 heading into the sixth inning when senior Lauren Seffens (Ortonville, Mich.) stepped up to bat with two outs and runners on second and third.  Seffens hammered a single to left center to bring in Burns and Piar and give the Grizzlies the win.  Also leading Oakland at the plate was Burns who first gave the team a lead with a home run in her first at bat.   

In their final game of the 2003 season, Oakland faced Notre Dame.  The No. 4 seed defeated Oakland in seven innings by a score of 5-0 to end the Grizzlies 2003 season. 

Both the players and coaches of the 2003 team will always remember a season that will say goodbye to eight seniors.  A team that knew how to win and when to win won with pride.  As coach Tomlinson was left saying, “We’re now a team that people respect.  And a team that a lot of people have come to fear.”

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