As two-time reigning America East champions, the UMBC women’s softball team is eagerly awaiting the spring season. Following a promising preseason, teammates and coaches are confident and feel prepared to fight for their third America East Conference championship in a row.
Senior catcher and utility—a player who is capable of playing multiple positions—Karly Keating ’22, media and communication studies, remembers what it felt like to capture the conference championship in 2019, the program’s first since they joined America East in 2003. The Retrievers were expected to place last in the tournament. Instead, they upset number three Stony Brook in a thrilling championship match.
“UMBC was known for just not being good at softball. We were always ranked last in our conference every single year, like not even close to even be considered,” Keating said. So when they won the conference tournament, went to the NCAA Tournament selection room and saw they were facing Oklahoma—one of the best softball schools in the NCAA—in the first round, it was a total shock. “When you were a little girl, you knew that’s where the number one school is and you wanna go there, and now the fact that I was playing there was really awesome.”
The making of the team
Even though the team was ultimately defeated by Oklahoma, senior infielder Chloe Obispo ’22, media and communication studies, can’t stop thinking about their surreal win against Stony Brook. Since there was no pressure to win, they just played their game throughout the season and hoped to prove everyone wrong.
“We ended up playing in the conference tournament, and we just kept it day by day, every single game,” Obispo said. “We realized, ‘maybe we actually have a chance this season.’ We were supposed to be last, but it didn’t seem like we could be last at that point. [The win] was a surprise to everyone, including ourselves.”
Both players added that their recruiting class, the class of 2018, included players that filled some gaps in previous rosters. “My freshman year, we were close, but we were really just a bunch of good girls coming together,” said Keating. “And then as we went on, we just got a lot more gelled together and I think we just stayed really strong-minded throughout the whole season.”
Winning under pressure
The team’s new-found confidence fueled a great start to their 2020 season, and they racked up five wins until the season was canceled by COVID. Nonetheless, the team brushed it off, worked hard over the seven months of quarantine, returned for the 2021 season, and defended their title from 2019.
“We had to keep our heads high because we won the first time. I felt like a lot more people were coming for us since we basically shut out every team in the tournament last time. When we were working out, we kept in mind that we had to keep our crown, keep our ring,” Obispo said. “It was a lot of pressure, but it was definitely something that we could all handle together.”
Keating said that their second championship win felt just as shocking as the first, but the team had something more to prove. “We had to do it for ourselves, and to prove to us that we are what we preach.”
Ohana Means Family
The team culture revolves around the word “Ohana,” the Hawaiian word for family, said Obispo. This feeling of sisterhood and “no girl left behind” is what drew Obispo to the program, and what the team wanted to showcase in the 2021 regional game. They wanted to show their guts, their trust in each other, and feel like they accomplished something as a family rather than a team.
“Our Ohana is what our culture and program is all about,” said head softball coach Chris Kuhlmeyer. “We cannot accomplish anything without each other. Choosing love, respect, unselfishness and forgiveness over pride, unforgiveness, and selfishness will lead you to places you never knew you could accomplish together. At the end of the day, when we say Ohana, we are choosing family over self and everyone else.”
To prepare for the Spring 2022 season, the team is working tirelessly to be prepared to defend their title. During the fall semester, they condition once a week on top of daily practices on the field and three weight room sessions per week.
The players are also focusing on accountability: making sure each teammate is using their time wisely, even if that means spending their day off at the cages to improve their hitting, or getting on the mound for a few hours to perfect their pitching.
Off the field, they also are strengthening their “Ohana” with team bonding exercises.
“My coach does this thing where he puts us in groups and we have to go out and do something, and he puts us in groups with different people,” said Obispo. “I think that’s something the team really needed because you play with a bunch of girls and it can get a little hectic sometimes, so sometimes we have to learn how to get along and know more about each other.”
Obispo feels that these exercises help the team bond and will “help overall chemistry, like there are days where we win really big games, it will feel a lot better internally, like we won this as a team.”
They also are working to find each girl’s “why.” Each player’s “why” is different, but once they find their own individual reason, it makes the team as a whole stronger because each player will play to their best ability, making each win more meaningful. Keating says that intrinsic motivation is what drives her to play well. She understands that this is her last chance to play softball at a high, competitive level, so she wants to make the most of it and leave it all on the field.
“After college, I can play in a beer league. People will have fun and it will be a good time, but you don’t care as much,” she said. “I’ll never get the chance to play with girls that genuinely love the sport again.”
For Obispo, the people around her are what motivates her to make the most of her opportunities. “I’ve worked so hard for my whole childhood to get to moments like this,” she said. “I really enjoy showing up to practice for the people around me and for the people at home, like my family.”
Looking toward the 2022 Season
The team is eager to defend their crown. Unlike previous seasons, they are no longer underdogs, but the team to beat.
“I’m very confident in this group that at the end, we will be right there with a shot at it,” Kuhlmeyer said of winning the conference championship. “This team is built different than previous years, but with the pieces we have added and the veteran experience we have returning, that gives me the confidence we will be there again at the end. My belief in this group of women is endless.”
“I’m so excited for the season. Not only because it’s my last season, but I think we really have the potential to win,” said Obispo. With a talented freshman class, the team can adapt to any situation. Each player works just as hard as the next to play their part and step up to fill in any gaps needed. That shows the team’s versatility, confidence in themselves, and their willingness to take chances in a pinch.
“I think we have a lot of guts and I think we all care a lot, I mean not just for our egos because we won back to back, but because we want to win, we want to play in the conference tournament, we want to go play that regional game,” Keating concluded. “We are very confident and we know our goals.”
— By Jordan Lomax ’22, media and communication studies
Header image: UMBC Retrievers congratulate each other at the 2021 America East Championships. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11.