By Ehsan Kassim
Precious Birdsong could not answer the question. She bowed her head and the tears began to fall.
Middle Tennessee’s Cinderella season had struck midnight at the Tuscaloosa Regional following a loss on Friday to host Alabama and a loss to Oregon State Saturday.
“That says it right there,” MTSU softball coach Jeff Breeden said in response to his player’s emotional reaction.
Birdsong, who started in 205 games and hit .380 in her four-year Blue Raider career, composed herself, smiled and finally answered the question, “What has Middle Tennessee meant to you?”
“It’s literally turned me into the person that I am today,” she said. “Middle Tennessee has done literally everything for me, and I just wanted to do it in return. I wanted to be the best person I could be on and off the field. I wanted to give all that I could to my team, to my coaches, to the community.”
Birdsong has returned the favor to the MTSU softball program and then some.
The Blue Raiders had not played in an NCAA regional since 2000, when the program played in the Ohio Valley Conference. Birdsong and the other five seniors on the team were around the ages of three or four at the time.
A 39-22 season and a Conference USA Championship helped build the program, due to the leadership and hard work of the seniors.
“This senior class is going to be remembered for having turned this thing around and doing everything they could to make us successful,” Breeden said. “It’s going to hurt when we talk (after the post game press conference). I’m sure they will be a lot of tears. But when we look back and reflect on it, it’s going to be a lot of remembering the happy times.”
MTSU did not have an easy path to the regional. The team earned everything it got.
Breeden succeeded as a high school coach in Tennessee, posting a 764-188-3 record in 22 combined years at Riverdale High and Coffee County High.
The success did not translate into the college level right away. The Blue Raiders won just seven games in his first season and went 81-182 in the first five seasons.
That laid the groundwork for what the team began to reap benefits from in 2018.
MTSU, a sixth-seed in the Conference USA Tournament, became the lowest ranked seed to win the conference championship, defeating each of the top-three seeds. The conference championship earned the Blue Raiders a spot in the NCAA Regionals.
“We set out to win a conference championship and we were able to do that,” senior Morgan Harris said. “This year, we made history.”
The early exit from the Regionals still clearly stung Birdsong, but she knew what the team had just accomplished still meant a lot.
“People know that Middle Tennessee softball exists (now),” Birdsong said, “and that they’re really good.”
— Behind the Plate Softball (@BTPSoftball) May 14, 2018
The Blue Raiders offense set school records in batting average (.300) and hits (476) in 2018. Unfortunately, the well ran dry against the tough pitching they faced in Tuscaloosa.
MTSU, which rosters half of it’s players from the state of Tennessee, could not muster any runs and scattered just seven hits in the regional.
Despite that, the Blue Raiders realized they belonged on the stage with the other programs, ones that have more experience in this situation than they did.
“It’s very fulfilling,” Harris said. “We’ve turned the culture of this program around. Coach Breeden has been able to instill in our community that we can be a winning program and I hope that we leave this legacy behind.”
The legacy of the 2018 senior class will be felt by the 14 returning teammates and the coaching staff. Breeden will have a tool he’s never had before when he goes out to recruit players to play for MTSU softball.
“We tell all of our recruits that we’re going to play for a Conference USA Championship,” Breeden said. “But from here on out, it won’t be that we’re going to play for a Conference USA Championship. We’re going to say, ‘We are Conference USA Champions.’
“It’s going to help us put some validity to our recruiting and some backbone into our talk and into our recruiting process.”
Breeden knows getting to this point once is not enough. He hopes his returning players and incoming freshman can carry the torch.
Both Birdsong and Harris were reflective of their MTSU careers and what is still to come for the program.
“We worked all season to get to where we are today,” Birdsong said. “Morgan and I worked all four of our years to be the best we could be as a team. And just getting here just caps off what we were able to accomplish as a senior class.”
“We’ll be back,” Harris added.
Alabama and Oregon State, after each defeated Wisconsin on Saturday, will face off in the regional finals on Sunday at 1:30 p.m.