Aug. 10—MIDDLEBURY — On June 23, 1972, the Education Amendments of 1972 were signed into law. The most notable part of the legislation were the 37 words of Title IX in the act, which read, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
While sports weren't directly mentioned in the law, Title IX paved the way for what female sports is today. In Indiana, high school girls volleyball and gymnastics were immediately added as IHSAA sports in the 1972-73 season, while girls track, golf, swimming and diving, basketball, tennis, cross country, softball and soccer all eventually followed suit over the next 25 years.
Now, with it being the 50th anniversary of Title IX, The Goshen News is proud to celebrate some of the best female sports achievements from its coverage area.
This story focuses on the 1988 Northridge girls softball team, which made a remarkable run to a state championship in a one-class system.
THE EARLY DAYS OF THE SPORT
Although Title IX had passed in 1972, the IHSAA did not adopt girls softball as a sport until 1985.
That year, Annette Evans was a freshman at Northridge High School, making her part of the inaugural softball team at the school.
"I didn't know high school without it," Evans said. "I was happy because there were a lot of women before me that weren't able to play, so I felt honored and wanted to do a really good job so they could keep the sport."
Evans had played softball growing up, so she wasn't new to the sport when she started her high school career. While she would become known for her work as a pitcher, that wasn't her role in her first year as a Raider.
"My freshman year, I spent a lot of time just trying to be seen and trying to win my spot on the team," Evans said. "I remember working really hard as a designated hitter. Pitching wasn't on the table since we had a really strong pitcher."
In 1986, Evans became the primary pitcher for the Raiders, and the team found its first taste of postseason success with a sectional championship. That season, Northridge outslugged Concord, 13-11, in the sectional final before losing to South Bend Adams in the regional semifinals.
With a lot of seniors on the 1987 roster, the Raiders were expected to be a threat to make the eight-team state tournament heading into the season. Unfortunately, it didn't go the way of Northridge, as it was eliminated in the sectional.
FROM NO EXPECTATIONS TO STATE RUN
Going into 1988, there was one senior on the Northridge softball roster: Evans. This meant expectations were low for the Raiders heading into the spring season.
"I was the only senior on that team, so I think I just wanted to have a fun season," Evans recalled. "... I had no expectations of winning since we had lost such strong players (from 1987)."
Crystal Bender, a junior in 1988, had similar expectations to Evans for the season.
"We did have a pretty strong class the year before that had graduated, and I remember thinking that we had lost quite a few players," Bender said. "We had Annette, though, and Annette was a phenomenal pitcher, so we had the pitching. We had a lot of new players in new positions that year."
Fortunately for Northridge, the crop of sophomores and freshmen on the team stepped up in a big way. While the Raiders weren't a dominant team in the regular season, they still entered the postseason with a 12-8 record.
The Raiders would then beat Elkhart Memorial and Lakeland in the sectional quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, to set up a showdown in the sectional final with Elkhart Central. The Blue Blazers owned two victories over Northridge in the regular season, including a 9-4 win in the season finale. Central was also one of the higher ranked teams in the state, sitting in the top 10 of the polls at the time.
Facing what seemed to be an insurmountable task, Evans admits she prepared for the worst going into that game.
"I remember sitting and crying because I thought it was going to be the last game of my life because we were playing Elkhart Central, and at the time, they were ranked fourth in the state," Evans said. "There was one class back then, and they had beaten us twice in the season; like, killed us. When we went into the sectional game, I was like, 'This is the last game I'm ever going to play. And I'm the only senior, so boo-hoo me.'"
The scrappy Raiders hung around throughout the game, only trailing 2-1 going into the bottom of the seventh. In their final at-bats, Northridge was able to load the bases with two outs, bringing sophomore Brenda Helmuth to the plate. With their season on the line, Helmuth hit a blooper into right field. The Blazers right fielder dove to catch it, but it bounced out of her glove and onto the ground.
Two runs scored, and Northridge was sectional champions.
"I do remember thinking we were going to lose because we were down," Bender said. "If it had been a hard hit, she probably would've caught it because she was a phenomenal right fielder."
Northridge then kept the momentum rolling, beating LaPorte in the regional semifinal and DeKalb in the regional championship, advancing to the state tournament.
"I actually missed my high school commencement because I was pitching the championship game of regionals, so I never went to commencement," Evans said. "There was no question in my mind where I was going that night; I was like 'Heck no, I don't want to go to commencement.' We ended up playing another team that had beat us in DeKalb. They had beaten us twice earlier in the season ... we beat them in the regional championship game and it was like, 'Are you kidding me? We're going to state.' That wasn't even on our radar."
HISTORY AT STATE
For Northridge to win a state championship, it was going to have to win three games in two days against the state's best competition.
Fortunately for the Raiders, they had one of the best pitchers in the state in Evans.
In the state quarterfinal game against North Central, Evans pitched a two-hitter to lead her team to a 2-1 win. The next morning, in the semifinal contest against Eastern (Greentown), Evans allowed only three hits in a 4-0 shutout victory, advancing Northridge to the state title contest later that night.
The Raiders would square off against defending state champion New Albany for the crown.
"I do remember (New Albany) had four or six players just take the mound and pitch to warmup," Bender said. "And I remember thinking, 'Oh my goodness.' They were the defending state champions, so they looked very professional compared to us. We looked kind of small, and I remember that being kind of intimidating."
In the state title game, Northridge came out on fire, scoring five runs across the first four innings. Bender had an RBI single in the third inning, then four more runs came across the plate in the fourth, two of which off a base hit from junior Shelly Riegsecker.
After New Albany countered with two runs of their own, the Raiders tacked on three more to take an 8-3 lead through five innings.
Carrying that advantage into the seventh, Northridge seemed poised to cruise to an easy win. The Bulldogs nearly erased that lead, however, scoring three runs in the frame and putting the tying runs on base.
With it looking like the Raiders were going to collapse completely, Evans composed herself and retired the next two batters she faced — including a strikeout in the final at-bat of the game — to seal the improbable state title for Northridge.
On top of the state title, Evans was named the IHSAA Mental Attitude Award winner for the sport as well.
With 34 years now to reflect on that state title run, Evans says she's grateful for what happened during that spring.
"The life lessons you learn, I really have used them through my life," Evans said. "We felt like we were from the movie 'Hoosiers'; we were playing against the big guys. To know that a small school from Middlebury, Indiana, can win a state championship probably gave me confidence throughout other monumental tasks in my life; like, 'Hey, I was on a state championship team. I can do this.'
"I look back on it now and it just feels like a dream. I can't believe we actually did that."
Austin Hough can be reached at email@example.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.