CHARLESTON, S.C. - Last season, injuries prevented Charleston Southern fifth-year seniors Jessica Brock and Morgan Dowdy from lining up on the field for the Buccaneers. The senior duo worked behind the scenes, helping in various capacities to remain integral to the program, but both knew they wanted to be back out on the field when the game was on the line.
Battling through a tough fall practice schedule, as well as a full tournament slate early in the spring, the Buccaneers always knew they had the ability not only to challenge for the 2014 Big South Conference Championship, but advance to the NCAA Regional Tournament. However, to reach the tournament for the first time in program history, CSU needed key contributions from Brock and Dowdy, as well as a host of other players to make the tournament a possibility.
Possibility became reality when Charleston Southern defeated Coastal Carolina this past Sunday afternoon in the Big South Conference Championship Game, earning the Conference's automatic bid to the 2014 NCAA Tournament. CSU opens play in the Knoxville Regional on Friday night at 6 p.m. against host No. 10 Tennessee at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium.
"This year, to have them back, the leadership they brought to the team took us to a new level," CSU head coach Shane Winkler commented. "Morgan coming back and rounding out the pitching staff and giving it the depth that it had this season was huge. She stepped up big at times, especially late in the season. Then with Jessica coming back and being our all-around best offensive player and one of our best defensive players this year was tremendous. It is one of the biggest reasons we won the conference championship and are here in regional play this year."
When Dowdy and Brock both went down due to injuries early in the 2012 fall season, Winkler knew the challenge would be difficult for the Bucs in the 2013 season.
Dowdy had served as the primary pitcher on the 2012 squad, hurling a team-high 241.1 innings in setting the Charleston Southern single season strikeout record with 165. She also picked up her first 20-win season, finishing with a 20-13 record and four saves, as well as 26 complete games inside the circle. Brock, meanwhile, was among the team leaders with a .298 batting average with 22 runs scored and 22 RBI, entrenched in the middle of the CSU batting order in her junior season.
"Going into last season, we had the same expectations of the accomplishments that we had this year," Winkler commented on the loss of Dowdy and Brock last season. "It hurt us tremendously losing Morgan and Jessica, because those are two types of players who can lead your program to extreme heights. We saw the way that we missed them and what we lacked on the field last year in terms of depth in the circle and offensively as we struggled."
The loss of the talented duo saw the Buccaneers fall from a 33-26-1 overall record and the No. 3-seed in 2012, to a 15-40 record and the No. 9 seed in the 2013 Big South Conference Championships.
Although both players were sidelined, they remained key contributors to the program including helping out in various ways including video-taping games, encouraging their teammates in the dugout and even shagging fly balls in batting practice.
The senior duo took a little time getting reacclimated early in the spring season with Brock not picking up her first hit on the year until her third game of the season, while Dowdy did not pick up her first win until the second weekend against St. Bonaventure. However, both hit their groove when it mattered late in the season running up to the conference tournament.
Brock had been battling back pain since her sophomore season after the discovery of a stress fracture in her back. After battling through a bout of nerve pain causing her to go through surgery, she was able to play her junior season. However, in 2012, the nerve pain came back stronger with a slipped disc in her lower back requiring fusion surgery in her back, sidelining her for the year.
"When I did my physical therapy over the summer and came back to CSU in the fall, I was cleared for everything," Brock said about the recovery time after missing last season. "It took me less than a year to get wholly back and I was excited to be back on the field."
Dowdy initially injured her back in her freshman season with the Buccaneers and reaggravated the condition in the summer of her freshman season, battling through increasing pain which the doctors labeled as two herniated discs. During a strength and conditioning session in the summer between her junior and senior season, the discs ruptured and cut off all signal from her brain to her right arm, limiting her strength and mobility.
"It was a long journey to get healthy," commented Dowdy on recovering from the surgery that sidelined her for the entire 2012-13 athletic year. "I wasn't able to lift more than five pounds for more than eight months, but did a lot of body weight exercises and lifting with our athletic trainer Zul (Hernandez). We did very slow pitching motions and range of motion exercises trying to get back to normal. After eight months of doing this, Coach (Kristen) Butler helped me and by the 10-month mark I was back to 100 percent."
The Journey Back
Although still battling brief flare-ups from time to time, Brock has turned in her finest season in the CSU Blue and Gold, culminating in earning Big South All-Conference Second Team honors at the Utility position. Brock responded with career highs in batting average, hits, doubles, triples, home runs and RBI in leading Charleston Southern in most of the major batting categories. She is currently in the top 10 in multiple CSU career categories including batting average, at-bats, hits, doubles, home runs and total bases.
"I think, honestly, knowing this was my last year with everything I had nothing to lose really," Brock said of her mindset entering the season. "I love the fact that my power numbers are up this season. I've never hit two home runs in a game before, and then going 3-for-3 against UCLA early this season was probably the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Dowdy has fully recovered from her injury and has been a key contributor to the Buccaneers staff with two complete games and four wins, as well as a save. Dowdy rounded into form late in the season going six innings to record the win in CSU's 2-1 victory over Gardner-Webb. The Pleasanton, Calif., native also went the distance against Campbell on Senior Day at the CSU Softball Field carrying a no-hit bid against the Camels into the seventh inning before finishing with a complete game two-hitter.
"Getting that first start back on the field was exciting of course," Dowdy said about getting back onto the field. "After everything I had been through, especially being the dominant pitcher in my junior year, having my super senior start was a great feeling and I really enjoyed it. One of the definite highlights this season was the Campbell game for Senior Day. Unfortunate that we couldn't get a win, but carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning was thrilling for me this year in general."
Big South Conference Tournament
In the Big South Conference Championships, Brock went hitless throughout the first two games of the tournament, but made her first hit of the postseason count as the Puyallup, Wash., native drilled a three-run home run over the centerfield fence in the top of the fourth inning, with the ball imbedding itself into a palmetto tree to the right of the flag pole at the CCU Softball Field. The home run proved to be the difference in sparking the Bucs to the 7-2 win over Longwood and propelling Charleston Southern into the Big South Championship Game.
"After the first game of the tournament, I was like, 'Man, we can really do this!'," Brock said about the team's tournament run. "I think early on in the tournament, I put too much pressure on myself and I had zero confidence. However, talking with Coach Winkler and Marcus (Smith), I was able to relax, stop thinking so much and just focus on what really mattered."
Relaxed and refocused, Brock turned in her best performance of the postseason to date against Coastal Carolina on Sunday afternoon, going 2-for-4 from the plate and scoring an insurance run in the top of the fifth in CSU's 3-1 win over the Chanticleers.
Dowdy, in her lone appearance in the Big South Conference Tournament, went three innings in the start against Presbyterian, holding the Blue Hose to one run in scattering five hits in CSU's 4-3 win.
"It felt great getting back to the tournament," said Dowdy on playing the Big South Championships. "It was fun being back and pitching against Presbyterian in the conference tournament after having pitched against them in years past. It felt great being back in the tournament, especially with how far we went in my junior year and how far we went this year was great as well."
On Making the NCAA Tournament
One of the more memorable pictures among a series of photos taken on Sunday afternoon came during the team celebration as Dowdy and Brock shared an embrace and tears in the team celebration on the CCU Softball Field. The Buccaneers were heading to their first NCAA Tournament.
Brock is looking forward the tournament and excited about the future of the Charleston Southern softball program.
"I think it's just amazing that we were able to do this," the CSU senior second baseman had to say heading into the weekend. "We're the first team to ever do that in CSU softball history, and with having such a younger team with all of the freshmen we have, I think they can come back again and do it next year. I feel like we can win, and it would be great to beat Tennessee on their home field in the tournament."
Likewise, Dowdy is excited about making her first trip to the NCAA Tournament and the confidence she and the Buccaneers have is enthusiastic as they prepare to No. 10 Tennessee on Friday evening.
"We want to win this weekend," commented Dowdy on the general feeling running through the Buccaneers team about the weekend. "That's obviously the goal. We weren't expected to get to the championship game, let alone as far as we did in the conference tournament this year, and now that we have, if we continue with the momentum that we have, we can do this."