Millikin Athletics Director Craig White had a problem.
But it was the kind of problem an athletics director wants to have.
After Millikin’s softball team posted a 30-10 record, surprisingly improving 12 games in the win column, and captured the CCIW title, White was in charge of finding portable bleachers to increase the seating at Workman Family Softball Field to accommodate the conference tournament that will he held there starting today.
“All of a sudden we won the conference and are hosting the conference tournament and so we are in the process of getting some portable bleachers for tournament play. It’s something we didn’t anticipate for this season,” White said earlier this week.
Unexpected might be a good way to express how Millikin’s season has gone.
The unpredictable and cold central Illinois March weather leads the team to take a yearly trek to Florida to play a series of neutral site games against teams from all around the country. The 2017 schedule took the team to 14 games in the Sunshine State and it finished 7-7 before packing their bags for home.
At that point, predicting that Millikin would manage a 23-3 record over its next 26 games and win 14 consecutive home games would be hard to swallow for even the most devoted Big Blue fan.
After all, expectations might be lower as head coach Katie Tenboer and assistant coach Whitney Sowers were entering just their second year coaching the team.
After the 18-20 2016 season, White had expectations of trying to reach the conference tournament.
“Your first goal is the top four in the conference and to make the playoffs and with our relatively unproven team, a top four finish would be a solid year. It would definitely have been progress," he said.
Tenboer places her expectations much, much higher.
“No matter what year, our expectation is to win a national title," she said. "Why are we competing after all? This year, the team has bought into the goals.”
Millikin is one step closer to meeting Tenboer’s expectations with its first appearance in the CCIW tournament since 2012. A tournament championship would also bring an automatic berth to the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Suddenly Tenboer’s lofty goal seems like a real possibility.
While a national championship was a goal, other milestones were discussed too.
“Reaching the conference tournament was a goal, no girl on the team had been there before,” Tenboer said.
Millikin last hosted the CCIW tournament in 2011 when the team called Borg-Warner Field home.
But the team’s last regular-season game was back on April 23 against Carthage. That means the Big Blue will have been out of action for 12 days before the start of the CCIW tournament.
The long break might be worrisome, but Sowers views it differently.
“The break is awesome," Sowers said. "We are healing and able to get our play back on track and bring it back to the basics.”
The break also hasn't diminished their motivation.
“Katie and I don’t need to motivate these women. They are hungry to get better. They are excited for the postseason,” Sowers said.
Since Workman Family Softball Field opened, Millikin has been a perfect 14-0 there. But don't just pencil in the Big Blue as champs because of the field.
“The Workman Field has given us such a special place for the team to play. It is a place for them to play and be proud and it helps the program going forward. But it isn’t the facility that wins those games, it is the girl’s hard work that does.”
Without question, Workman Family Softball Field has also brought the team a popularity they may have never seen before.
An estimated 600 people came out to see the field's dedication in March and the team has averaged 150 fans this season, which is more than double the attendance rate last season.
For Sowers, the stadium’s crowds and cheering fans have helped the team tremendously but the increased accessibility for the players and coaches has been an added bonus.
“We have a good mix of talented people, both players and coaches," White said. "The field certainly helped with preparation, and if you go watch practice you can see the players are proud to be on field and that pride carries over to the games.”
While Millikin fans might be focused on how long the home winning streak lasts, Tenboer is certain her team is zeroed in on the smaller details.
“We don’t live and die by the streak, we want to win the next pitch and then win the next pitch, and if you keep doing that all of a sudden you’ve won the game,” she said.