BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
May 22, 1998, will forever be a red-letter day in the history of Western Washington University athletics - the day the Vikings won their first team national championship in any sport.
But for the women's fastpitch squad which brought home that title, the day meant even more, for rarely has a team faced so many obstacles in reaching its goal.
The Vikings barely earned an at-large berth to nationals. In the days leading up to the tourney, they lost two pitchers to injuries. Then their head coach, Art Phinney, spent most of the tournament hospitalized with intestinal problems. Four times Western came from behind to win tournament games, twice in its last at-bat. And then, to throw up one last barrier, the championship game pitted the Vikings against a team they had lost to six times during the season.
But Western overcame all of it, sweeping through the double-elimination NAIA National Tournament held at Broken Arrow, Okla., with a perfect 5-0 record, including a 5-1 victory over arch-rival Simon Fraser University in the title game.
"They were an incredible group of young women who worked so hard all year long," said Phinney about his team that finished with a 33-13 record. "I know a lot of people were surprised by this. Honest to goodness, I was not surprised because of their work ethic. When people work that hard, I feel that good things are going to happen."
The Vikings nearly didn't get to nationals. After falling to Simon Fraser in the Pacific Northwest Athletic Conference finals, Western was forced to wait for an at-large berth. Ranked No.11 in the final NAIA National Poll, the Vikings seemed assured of getting in. Instead, upsets in five regional tournaments across the country put Western on the brink of elimination before being awarded the final at-large berth.
In the week prior to nationals, Western's pitching depth suffered two blows, as a reliever sustained a knee injury and the No.3 starter suffered a broken jaw. Both missed the tourney.
But once the games started, things fell into place. In the opening round against Southern California College, Western fell behind, but tied the game with two runs in the sixth, then won it in the eighth, as Darcy Taylor's squeeze bunt scored Diana Burrows with the go-ahead run in a 6-5 triumph.
After a 4-1 victory over William Woods College MO in the second round, the Vikings needed late-inning heroics once again versus four-time defending national champion Oklahoma City University. With the game tied at three, Western had two out and none on in the bottom of the seventh. The game seemed headed for extra innings, but Jen Brandolini reached first on an infield error, bringing Sonya Joseph to the plate. Joseph, who had dreamt the night before of getting a game-winning hit, did just that, doubling to the left field wall, allowing the speedy Brandolini to score the winning run for a 4-3 victory.
"I had faith in Sonya," said Brandolini. "She was doing awesome. At the crack of the bat, I was running and when I scored, everybody went crazy. Half the girls went out and tackled Sonya and half tackled me. We were all crying out of joy. It was almost like winning a national championship."
That victory put the Vikings into a matchup with Simon Fraser, with the winner going directly to the championship game. One more time, Western came from behind. Trailing 2-1 in the fifth, the Vikings got two runs, then added two more in the sixth and went on to a 5-2 win.
The championship game, a rematch with Simon Fraser, was almost anti-climactic, as Western had a relatively straightforward 5-1 triumph. Perhaps most notable was the return of Phinney, who was in the dugout after spending the previous three games in the hospital.
"It was a difficult week for me, missing three of the games," said Phinney, who was named NAIA National Coach of the Year. "But I was there for the first one and the last one. The team just played so well."
Phinney was prouder of no one more than Joseph, who was named tournament MVP. In addition to her hit against Oklahoma City, the Vikings' leftfielder made a number of great defensive plays, gunning down a potential game-tying run at the plate against William Woods, then making four sparkling catches in the championship game, including a diving stab in the fifth inning that saved two runs and snuffed out Simon Fraser's best rally of the day.
"It was a tribute to her work ethic and her attitude," said Phinney. "She came from someone who hit .077 as a freshman to being MVP of the national tournament a year later. That's an incredible jump, but she worked extremely hard and had an incredible attitude the year when she really wasn't getting to play."
Western pitcher Devon Fliss, catcher Cathy Johnson and Brandolini, the centerfielder, were named to the all-tournament team along with Joseph.
Alison Haukaas pitched the complete game victory in the final. She also got the win in the first game, and Fliss worked the three victories in between.
The title game was the 10th time Western and Simon Fraser had met during the season. The Clan won six of the games, with four going into extra innings.
The Vikings were victorious in 18 of their last 21 games, beginning with a school-record 11-game winning streak. During the season, they broke 55 school records and tied 13 others. Eleven of Western's 13 losses were to nationally ranked teams with nine being to Top 10 squads.
Haukaas and Johnson led five Western players named to the NAIA Pacific Northwest Sectional all-star team. Haukaas earned sectional honors for the third straight year, and Johnson was picked for the second consecutive season. Also receiving sectional accolades were Brandolini, catcher-third baseman Andie Greenen and Fliss.
Brandolini was named PNWAC Hitter of the Year. She was one of three Vikings who were unanimous picks to the all-league team. Also named on every ballot were Haukaas and Johnson. Haukaas was selected for the third straight year and Johnson was named for the second consecutive season.
Brandolini, batting left-handed after hitting right-handed her first two years, led the PNWAC with a .431 batting average, being the league leader in hits (69), runs scored (44) and stolen bases (30). All those figures were school records. Brandolini had a school-record 18-game hitting streak, tying the league mark in that category.
Johnson hit .401 and topped the league in runs batted in with 44 and doubles with 18. The RBI and doubles totals were school records. Haukaas had a 1.39 earned run average and a 9-2 record (.818).
Greenen and Fliss were also first-team selections. Receiving honorable mention were Burrows, the third baseman and only senior on the squad; pitcher Mandy Helzer and Joseph.
Eight Western regulars hit over .300. Besides Brandolini and Johnson, they were Burrows (.389), Greenen (.340), Joseph (.316), second baseman Coni Posey (.307), Fliss (.306) and outfielder Dani Puz (.305). Joseph was a perfect 29-for-29 in stolen bases.
Burrows had a team-leading .500 batting average (4-for-8) at nationals, followed by Posey at .467 (7-for-15) and Puz at .438 (7-for-16).
Fliss was 14-5 with a league-best 0.94 ERA, setting school records for victories and lowest ERA. She also had team bests of 11 complete games, four shutouts, three saves, 92 strikeouts and 104-2/3 innings pitched. Helzer, who suffered a broken jaw in practice the day before nationals began, had a 1.30 ERA and a 7-5 record.
Western had a team batting average of .331 and a 1.18 ERA. The Vikings stole 111 bases (136 att.), while holding their opponents to 12 (23 att.).
However, the numbers aren't what will be remembered. Instead, it will be the incredible performance put together during four days in May.
The national title, accomplished by a program in just its sixth year of existence, was the first and last in 61 years as a NAIA member for Western, which moved to Division II of the NCAA the following year.
"There could be no better way to go out than to go undefeated in the national tournament and beat your top rival in the championship game," said Phinney. "It took a while for things to jell. We didn't have any key turning point, it was more of a progression. It just kept getting better and better."
A tragic loss less than 16 years later
On May 2, 2014, just shy of the 16th anniversary of Western's incredible run to a national softball title, Sonya Joseph-Perez died at the age of 35 after a courageous battle with breast cancer.
Joseph-Perez was named the Most Valuable Player at the 1998 NAIA National Tournament after leading the Vikings to the school's first national team title in any sport.
"We believed that we could pull it off," Joseph said following the championship. "But it was a shock that I got MVP. I never expected that."
The unseeded Vikings defeated Simon Fraser, 5-1, in the title contest, as they swept all five of their games in the 16-team, double-elimination tournament. Western trailed in four of those contests, winning two in its final at bat.
In one of the biggest upsets in NAIA history, Joseph-Perez drove in the game-winning run with a two-out double in the seventh inning of a third-round 4-3 victory over four-time defending national champion Oklahoma City. She also made four sparkling defensive plays in the title contest.
Joseph-Perez hit just .077 the previous season with only one hit in 13 at bats. But she remained confident because Western coach Art Phinney assured her that she could flourish at the college level. In 1998, Joseph hit .316 and was successful on all 29 of her stolen base attempts.
"It felt great, because my coach told me he always had confidence in me and not to get frustrated," said Joseph-Perez following the Vikings' title. "I worked really hard during the summer so I could have a better season."
Joseph-Perez finished the national tourney with a .368 average (seven hits in 19 at bats) with two runs batted in, two doubles and three stolen bases.
Joseph-Perez was a 1996 graduate of A.J. Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska. She was a four-sport athlete for the Lynx, competing in swimming, basketball, track and field and softball.
Showing her inner strength, Joseph-Perez worked full time until one month prior to passing while overcoming several obstacles caused by cancer to do so. Her bigger than life personality and glowing spirit were best illustrated in her brilliant smile.
Joseph-Perez was survived by her husband, Miguel (Mike) Perez; a former Western football player; daughter, Kailana; parents, Herbert and Kathleen Joseph; and brothers, Kevin and Brandon Joseph.
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
Comments by Sonya's husband Miguel Perez on her ...
Passion: Sonya had a passion for family first, women's athletics and the `underdog' story line. Having our daughter only supported this and made watching sports in our house a challenge for me. It would start in March watching women's March Madness, to the NBA season then on to the WNBA season, and naturally watching countless softball games leading up to the College World Series. In part, that amazing run that special WWU softball team put together in 1998 was a huge reason she always picked the underdog in any game or situation. I cannot tell you how many times she boasted about how they were the underdogs and won it all...she loved rubbing that in and comparing it to our 1996 football title game. When she would fill out the men's college basketball brackets the only question she would ask about the match ups was who the underdog was and just pick them. The biggest underdog story illustrating her passion was her choice in picking me as I definitely married up and to this day have no idea how that happened. Nevertheless, she was all about women's athletics and supporting their advancement and acknowledgement. We have twin nieces in Bellingham and we lived in Auburn. Sonya would drive up to Bellingham to watch their game and drive back down in the same day to support them. Sonya's passion for family was first and foremost and in the years after being diagnosed, nothing stopped her from being everywhere for everyone. This last October, her body began to have a few challenges but nothing was going to stop her from making a trip to Puerto Rico for her brother's wedding. If you had the opportunity to watch Sonya and her two brothers interact you would have sworn they were triplets, their bond, love and passion for each other was unparalleled.
Strength: Sonya was the hardest working woman (besides my mother) that I have ever met. I don't know a day she did not work. I had to beg and trick her into taking days off for things. Through this process there were some days when she had doctor's appointments or chemo and she would still work from home. She went in on Saturdays to make up hours. I would ask her why and give her the long lecture about corporate and how anyone and everyone is replaceable and putting such time simply is not worth it... she threw daggers at me with her eyes like I was speaking blasphemy. Her last day of work was April 1st and she passed on May 2nd. She spent 6 days in the hospital beginning on April 1st and during her entire hospital stay all she wanted to do was either work on taxes or get up and get to work. When we got her home she kept talking about when she will get back to work, she needed to work. In the end it wasn't me or family that kept her from work it was her doctor and naturally she argued with him. If it was up to her she would have worked every day. She never once complained and her mind was set on defeating it and Sonya never once wavered from that mindset.
Courage: My wife was diagnosed on her birthday (April 25th) 2011. That was one of the hardest days we faced together and we certainly had a few over the years. At the time, my mentor and second mother, was fighting ovarian cancer. She had been diagnosed in 2004. When Sonya and I moved back to Washington in 2006 we spent a lot of time with my mentor Trudy and their family. Trudy (WWU grad and Hall of Fame HS VB coach at Nooksack Valley High School) passed in March of 2012. That was almost a full year after Sonya's diagnoses. I like to believe that I have illustrated some courage over the years in challenging situations, but Sonya's courage on March 3, 2012, is astonishing. While Sonya knew her condition, she along with the rest of the family, sat alongside Trudy as she passed. I do not know how she ever did that, but to be in the same room with someone as they pass from cancer knowing that you also have cancer is one of the most courageous things I think someone can do. We never really talked about that. After and during that day I monitored Sonya, checking to see how she was but we never debriefed after about what it made her feel or think. She cried as expected but never once did she say anything about herself. The courage to be there, face that while supporting me and the rest of the family is the definition of courage when putting others before self.
Leadership: I am willing to concede this to her teammates in regards to leadership in the athletic realm but would imagine she tried to lead by example. Nevertheless, leadership exudes from Sonya. You could see it as soon as she entered any room. She turned heads with her presence, she made others smile with her smile and people flocked to her spirit. People listened when she spoke and followed her lead and she never once took advantage of that type of influence. Since she graduated from WWU in 2001, she held several jobs over the years. The perfect example of her leadership is that after May 2nd I have heard from at least one person (if not more) from every single one of those jobs. I honestly do not know of a single person who disliked or had something negative to say about Sonya. From a family standpoint, she was our leader. I got to lead here and there, but she led me. She naturally made the decisions with our finances and thus pretty much made all of our decisions. But she wasn't the dictator authoritarian. She asked questions, shared her `strong' opinions, and did an amazing job of knowing when to hold to her guns and when to concede. Watching her with our daughter whether showing her how to hold and swing the bat to helping her learn the alphabet, illustrate those qualities of a natural leader. She had the most patience of anyone I know. She was considerate of everyone and cared about everyone. She was strong, firm and thoughtful and solution oriented in every situation and never made quick or rash decisions.
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