Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Funny thing about athletes, reunions and championship teams: The older they get, the better they were, as the saying goes.
No embellishment necessary when it comes to the 1987 Central Michigan softball team, one of the most successful - regardless of sport - in Chippewa athletic lore.
Members of that team, which finished fifth in the Women's College World Series, will gather on Saturday at Margo Jonker Stadium to commemorate the 30th anniversary of that magical season. The team will be recognized between games of the Chippewas' Mid-American Conference doubleheader with Northern Illinois. The twinbill begins at 1 p.m.
"I haven't seen a lot of them in a long time," said Kris (Tipmore) Popp, the team's catcher who went on to earn All-America honors in 1988. "I'm looking forward to seeing the girls, where they're at, what they're doing, how their lives have changed. In college, pretty much everything revolved around ball."
In '87, Margo Jonker was in her eighth year in charge of the Chippewa program, and had firmly established it as one of the best in the Midwest. CMU had won four of five Mid-American Conference championships in the seasons leading up to '87 and had, in 1982, finished fourth in the AIAW National Tournament in Oklahoma City.
Jonker, now in her 38th season at CMU and one of the sport's all-time winningest coaches, said the '87 squad will always hold a special place in heart.
"It is special anytime alumni come back, especially when teams were highly successful and they obviously were highly successful," she said. "I'm very excited that they'll be back. A lot of them will be here and it'll be great to see them, and I think it's great for our current players to see the tradition and realize it's about more than the current team, but it's about the program."
Among that team's myriad highlights:
It was the first and still only CMU team to earn a berth in the Women's College World Series.
The Chippewas finished 37-14, and won the MAC championship with an 11-1 mark.
Jonker earned the national and regional coach of the year awards that season and, for the fourth time in her still-budding career, was named the Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year.
The team included two players, Popp and Beth Bull, who would eventually earn All-America honors. Two players, first baseman Cathy Wylie and outfielder Cheryl Hein, were named All-Region in '87.
CMU went 5-0 during the regular season against teams that were ranked in the top 20. They swept three games from Michigan, with two of those victories coming while the Wolverines were ranked 19th. They also took two from third-ranked Nebraska, and knocked off sixth-ranked California. In those five wins, the Chippewas did not allow a run.
The pitching staff, comprising Karen Wongstrom, Heidi McLane, Jamie Brink and Hein, finished the season with a 1.11 earned run average. Wongstrom's .811 career win percentage remains the best in program history.
"We were very team oriented," said Popp, who is now a teacher in Bay City and has coached high school softball for some 25 years. "We weren't all really necessarily best friends, it just seems like we all truly enjoyed playing ball together -- laying it out on the line, giving all you got, leaving it on the field.
"Whoever was up at the time, they were going to get the hit. It seemed like it all clicked with that group. It just didn't seem like we were in it for ourselves, not for the stats. It was just that we did what we had to do to win. Didn't matter who did it, it was just getting done."
The Chippewas received a berth to the NCAA Tournament - at the time, the league champion did not receive an automatic bid, as is the case now - and faced Northwestern in the best-of-three Mideast Regional in Mount Pleasant.
Northwestern All-American Lisa Ishikawa blanked the Chippewas, 2-0, on a two-hitter in the regional opener, setting the stage for a stirring and oh-so-emotional twinbill.
The Chippewas won the regional's second game, 7-0, to even the series and set up the do-or-die finale. CMU scored three times in the sixth inning to break a scoreless tie, then Northwestern, the home team, tied it with three runs in the bottom of the seventh.
With the game still tied, Northwestern loaded the bases with none out in the eighth. McLane relieved Wongstrom and hit a batter, forcing in a run and touching off a Northwestern celebration. The umpire ruled that the batter had stepped into the pitch, which was actually ruled a strike, restored order, and the game resumed.
"That Northwestern game, that's what every kid dreams of," said McLane, who, like Popp, went on to a career in education and coaching. "Bases loaded, if they score, we don't go (to the World Series). I grew up that day on the mound. I grew up that day."
McLane worked out of the jam, and the Chippewas eventually scored the go-ahead run in the 11th inning on a Linda Webb sacrifice fly, capping what remains as one of the most dramatic and emotional days in program history.
Then it was on to Omaha, where the Chippewas, who, by then, had risen to No. 8 in the national rankings, dropped their opener to second-ranked Texas A&M, 3-0. The Aggies would go on to claim the national title.
CMU came back and Wongstrom fired a one-hitter in a 1-0 win over Florida State, before the Chippewas bowed to Nebraska, 2-1.
That Chippewa team, Popp said, refused to back down and went toe-to-toe while sharing the stage in Omaha with some of game's premier programs, such as A&M, Florida State, Nebraska and UCLA.
There was no question, Popp said, in the minds of the Chippewas that they belonged.
"We earned the right to be there like anybody else," she said. "And coach said the same thing: `Look what you did, you deserve to be here.'
"I don't think we were giddy. We went out there and played hard."
The women on that 1987 team recognized then that what they had accomplished was special. Over the years, the memories have endured, and their legacy is cemented in CMU athletic history.
"We knew it was big, but maybe we didn't realize how big," McLane said. "Now I look at the College World Series, with ESPN covering it, and I just sit back and watch and go `Oh my gosh, we did that.'"