How Southern Indiana Caught Fire & Won Their First DII Championship

How Southern Indiana Caught Fire & Won Their First DII Championship
View Full 2019 THE Spring Games Coverage
Jan 22, 2019
Chez Sievers

Southern Indiana hurler Jennifer Leonhardt stepped into the circle for the first time in her collegiate career back in February 2017. That game, the Screaming Eagles’ season opener, was against the defending NCAA Division II champion North Alabama.

Leonhardt fired a three-hit, complete-game shutout in the 3-0 win and gave USI opponents a glimpse of things to come.

Even back then, head coach Sue Kunkle knew what she had in her freshman hurler.

“I knew she was going to be good this year, but I was surprised at how poised she is in the circle,” said Kunkle in an interview I had with her for a preview of the upcoming 2017 NCAA Championship. “She is even-tempered and has great command of the game.”

That command carried into Leonhardt’s sophomore campaign, providing Kunkle and the Screaming Eagles the ultimate of results.

As fate would have it, Leonhardt would once again take to the circle against a defending DII champion, this time in the 2018 NCAA DII Championship opener against North Georgia.

The All-American sophomore again dominated, allowing just one hit and three base runners in her third consecutive complete game shutout – springboarding the Screaming Eagles into a tournament run that would end with USI bringing the National Championship Trophy back to Evansville.

Catching Fire
The Screaming Eagles made a 14-1 run through the post-season last May, culminating with the first-ever USI National Championship in any women’s sport.

“It was the most amazing moment of my career,” Kunkle said. “It obviously is something every coach strives for and wants for their program and their players – it was such a magical year.”

Kunkle credits that magic to a battle-ready attitude.

“Last year’s team was dynamic in many ways,” she said. “We were never a flashy team…never at the top of our conference. We had to battle back many times through our regular season play and found [ourselves] fighting to get into post-season….we truly won with every single player on our roster.”

Kunkle credits a 4-0 win over Indianapolis in the opening game of the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament as key to last season’s spectacular run.

“Our turning point of our season I think was when we won our first game at the conference tournament,” Kunkle said. “After we won that game and realized that we showed up and [were] back to playing the way we should have been playing all season, we were bound and determined to win the whole thing.”

That game, a one-hit shutout by Leonhardt – followed by a 10-0 thrashing of McKendree – led to back-to-back wins over defending GLVC Champion Missouri-St. Louis earning USI their first conference title in 20 years.

Leonhardt’s arm continued to dominate into the remaining 2018 postseason.

Overall in the NCAA Championship, Leonhardt was 5-0 with a 1.44 ERA, a .091 opponent batting average and 40 strikeouts in 34 innings of work. In 31 of the 34 innings she pitched in the championship, she allowed just three hits and no runs.

“Once we came into conference as the 6th seed, we literally had nothing to lose,” said Leonhardt. “We [rode] that expression all throughout the postseason and it made us focus on one game at a time and before you know it, one win turned into fourteen…we didn’t care about the numbers, we just wanted to play our best ball, and that’s what we did,” she added.

Return Of The Champs?
Kunkle echoed her prior praise of Leonhardt after her 2018 season success but understands that more than one arm will be needed for a chance to hoist the trophy in 2019.

“Jenn is a competitor,” said Kunkle. “She works very hard and wants to do the best she can to win for the team. Along with our returning seniors, [Haylee] Smith, [Caitlyn] Bradley, and our new incoming pitchers [we’ll] be a pitching staff that again will be a tremendous staff that will keep us hopefully as a National contending program.”.

But a National Championship trophy in your display case comes along with it a bullseye, and typically a circle on every opponent’s schedule looking to make a statement. Entering her 18th season at the helm of the Screaming Eagle bench, Kunkle likes their odds.

“This year’s team is very special,” said Kunkle. “We have a very talented core back and our incoming freshmen class is extremely talented. Everyone is hungry for success and the way they work every day is exciting to watch. The culture in our program is in place exactly where we want it and we expect to be a team right back at the top,” she added.

Entering the season as the defending national champion is a challenge in any sport.

“We all know we can’t be coming into this season too high, but we do have this confidence and positive energy that will hopefully propel us into the season,” said Leonhardt. “One of our sayings for this year is “291” because there are 291 other teams out there we have to beat on this “Road to Denver” but ultimately, we know it’s up to us and won’t just be handed to us.”

Her head coach agreed.

“Obviously the pressure is there, however, we are not going into the season looking at it like that at all,” said Kunkle. “This is a new year and a new team…the journey is long and grueling, but we are ready and excited to start the season.”

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