EUREKA — Eureka College’s softball team had the day off Monday. That didn’t mean the bats stayed in the bag.
Junior center fielder Sydney Shubert, the leading hitter in NCAA Division III with a .607 average, was planning to take some swings in the batting cage on her own time. And, as has become typical of Coach Debi Neff’s team, Shubert would not be alone.
“I know a bunch of us are going in later to get some hitting in,” Shubert said Monday afternoon. “We’ll go in sometimes as a group and take grounders or pitch to each other in the cage (without the coaches). We do that after dinner, or sometimes between classes we’ll go and hit. A lot of us do that.”
The work ethic helps explain Eureka’s .409 team batting average, among the best in Division III. It also sheds light on why the Red Devils made history Sunday.
A home doubleheader sweep of Spalding gave Eureka its first St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference softball championship since joining the league 13 years ago. The conference title was the fifth in the past three years at Eureka, joining women’s basketball (2017), football (2017, 2018) and men’s basketball (2019).
“It was super exciting,” Shubert said of Sunday’s 2-1 and 7-3 wins. “From the very beginning when we walked in the dugout, we knew we had to win. We were pumped up through both games.”
And when they won?
“Everyone went crazy,” Shubert said. “It was awesome.”
Spalding began the day a game ahead of Eureka. Two losses could have dropped the Red Devils as far down as fifth in the league standings and out of the four-team SLIAC Tournament. Instead, they’ll be the top seeds Thursday at Fulton, Mo., facing No. 4 Spalding at 5 p.m.
At 24-6 overall, Eureka has had four straight 20-win seasons, a first in school history. The Red Devils were 14-4 in SLIAC play despite having no seniors.
“I thought maybe we were a year away because we really had to work hard on some fundamentals with our new kids,” Neff said. “But I think they all get along real well and they blend. It’s awfully hard not to play hard for each other when you have good chemistry.”
Shubert, a transfer from Heartland, and freshman shortstop Raelyn Payne from Lexington give the Red Devils good speed at the top of the order. Neff called Shubert “a triple threat” for her ability to slap, bunt and hit away. The Eureka coach refers to Payne as “Rocket,” saying, “Sometimes she gets in the batter’s box and I feel like she’s going to take off.”
Eureka’s top power threat is junior first baseman Morgan Ledbetter, whose 12 home runs are a school record. She has driven in 48 and is batting .525. Payne has a .450 mark with a freshman-record seven homers and 30 RBIs.
“They spend hours in the cages,” Neff said of her players. “Even after we practice, they’ll come back and hit off the tee or do soft toss if they have a partner, which usually they do.”
Working hard in the pitcher’s circle has been junior Erin Smith, who pitched both games Sunday. She is 14-3 with a 1.74 earned run average, 68 strikeouts and 12 walks.
“Those were two crucial games (Sunday),” Neff said. “There was a lot of pressure on her, but she’s a really, really good student and I think that goes hand in hand with pressure. She can handle it.”
Eureka has gone 99-39 the past four years under Neff, whose overall mark is 149-95 in seven seasons.
“They have always had success under Coach Neff. We’ve been close (to a title) several times,” athletic director Bryan Moore said. “They have put all the pieces together this year. To win the outright championship on your home field on the last day of the regular season … it was a lot of fun.”
Celebrating has become common at Eureka during an upswing Moore said has “coincided with the renovations.” Eureka has made upgrades to Christine Bonati Bollwinkle Arena and Pete FioRito Stadium in recent years.
"Things are just kind of paying off for us,” Moore said. “Everything has been donor driven, which makes it even better. A lot of people are supporting us and things are looking up.”