Farmville, Va. — Minutes before first pitch of the Big South Conference championship final, Campbell softball head coach Sharonda McDonald-Kelley instructed her players to look down at their wrist bands. The message read “CU-Sunday,” meaning go one step farther than last year and reach the NCAA regional final, leveling up the program to new heights.
Championship Sunday came earlier than expected – a win-or-go home elimination game against Longwood University with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
“We went out and decided we’re going to kamikaze it,” explained Sharonda McDonald-Kelley. “We’re going to leave it all on the field and we’re going to go for it.”
Facing a hostile road environment, the pressure of repeating as champions, and the urgency to build on a special season, Campbell silenced the distractions.
“We put ourselves in the position for moments like this, so we’re good,” said senior outfielder Claudia Ware. “Each time something happens, we get closer and closer and closer. And right now, we’re just playing for each other because we want nothing more than success.”
FIGHT FOR OUR LIVES
Campbell entered the Big South Tournament with no players selected on the First Team All-Big South Conference. It was a unit that had to replace multiple starters from the 2021 championship squad, while overcoming the loss of Big South preseason Player of the Year, Bri Bryant, to a season-ending knee injury back in March.
Despite all that, Campbell entered the conference tournament tied with USC Upstate and Longwood by sharing the regular season title at an identical 21-6 record.
The Fighting Camels quest for back-to-back titles started against its two toughest foes, scoring five runs in an opening round win over Longwood, then roughed up Big South Pitcher of the Year, Hannah Houge, in the winner’s bracket final.
“We get knocked down, we stand right back up, and nothing can seem to stop us,” noted senior Kayla Fredendall. “There’s a fight within the team. It’s not something you can coach or teach.”
The Fighting Camels lived up to the “fight” in their name, winning all six games in the regular season decided in extra innings. They overcame a 14-inning marathon against the same Longwood club back on April 24 to secure a regular season title. Then fast forward to the final game of the tournament; Campbell leaned on that experience to get the job done.
“Look around you, this is our family,” McDonald-Kelley pointed out to her players in the huddle. “This is our people. Everything outside of the circle just can’t penetrate. That’s all that matters.”
That Campbell family called upon an emotional leader to step up from her usual role as the energizer bunny off the bench into captain clutch at the plate. The last time redshirt sophomore infielder Diana Parker started was on April 3, and her number was called in Game 54; an elimination contest to decide the Big South title.
Parker delivered the knockout punch — smacking her first home run of the year in the bottom of the sixth inning.
“She (Diana) was trying to play cool, and then I’m losing my mind my,” McDonald-Kelley joked following the game-clinching home run. “Then you could see the big smile across her face. That is what it’s all about.”
FROM UNDERDOG TO TOP DOG
Campbell closed out the regular season ranked 16th in the country in total ERA (1.96) and posted the 21st most shutouts (14) in DI NCAA Softball. It was the Camels calling card all year long.
When pitching coach Danielle Stenger needed it most, her staff delivered another gem.
Redshirt sophomore pitcher Georgeanna Barefoot, who herself is a third generation Campbell student-athlete, delivered a prolific week in the circle, earning Big South Tournament Most Valuable Player honors.
Barefoot dominated when the lights shined brightest, allowing only two earned runs over 19 innings of work, while striking out seven in the decisive final. Like many of her teammates, the accolades didn’t roll in for Barefoot.
The Raleigh native wasn’t even named to the First Team All-Big South Conference. However, she continued to fight until the championship goal became reality.
“It just makes us work that much harder because you don’t want anybody to take you down,” said Barefoot. “So, you’re just going to fight 10 times harder, have a lot of passion and play harder than ever before.”
Following a rain-delayed loss that wrapped up after 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night, Campbell returned to the field less than 12 hours later, witnessing the Longwood Lancers mount yet another comeback. After leading 8-1 in the final inning, Campbell allowed three runs, facing the possible tying run at the plate against Barefoot.
Backs against the wall, yet again, the Fighting Camels finished what they started.
“It’s really unbelievable,” said McDonald-Kelley. “I’m so proud of our team and so proud of our program. That was our goal we set out to accomplish it, and we did.”
NEXT UP – NCAA TOURNAMENT
That same championship Sunday poured into the night cap, an NCAA Tournament selection show on ESPN. The Campbell softball family huddled around televisions lined up in the Oscar N. Harris Student Union awaiting their postseason destination, as one of 64 teams advancing to the biggest tournament in college softball.
Last year, Campbell flew to Stillwater, Oklahoma, playing No. 6 national seed Oklahoma State, eventually earning its first NCAA Tournament win since 2008 by defeating Boston University.
On May 15, 2022, Campbell waited until the second half of the draw to find its eventual landing spot. The broadcast announced Campbell was selected in the most orange-tinted regional, traveling to No. 11 seed Tennessee, joining Oregon State and Ohio State.
Players were overjoyed with excitement, not only for a new destination, but for the chance to etch their own postseason history.
“I’m ready to go out and play for them at this point. For them and my grandpa, that’s all I have left for me right now,” said Claudia Ware, who suffered the loss of her late grandfather, Robert Ware, back in April.
The Campbell family grew even tighter during the tumultuous final two months, leading to the best stretch of the college softball season — championship May.
“It’s just exciting no matter who you’re playing because you see your name pop up there and you’re on TV and like, that is just a big deal,” said senior Kayla Fredendall.
Campbell Softball joined rare company, as one of just seven teams in the entire country to win back-to-back conference tournament and regular season titles.
For a program that had gone 12 years without hoisting the championship trophy, the seismic shift in national reputation among the softball community derived from that resilient spirit.
“We know that in order to win, we have to fight for our lives,” said Big South Tournament MVP, Georgeanna Barefoot. “That’s just always how we’ve been, playing like an underdog. So we just have to always keep fighting through everything.”
Following the gauntlet of earning both a regular season and tournament title in the same week, “Coach Sho” couldn’t have asked for any better preparation.
“We’re living up to the Fighting Camel name. That’s what we do, and we love it,” said McDonald-Kelley, who finally exhaled Sunday night after the busiest week of her coaching career. “That’s what we do, and we’re going to stampede right along to Knoxville.”