Lynchburg, Va. -- Nobody outside the program thought they would make it so far.
Especially with all the talent the Lynchburg College softball team lost to graduation in 2007: five starters and two All-Old Dominion Athletic Conference players, including the best offensive player in the history of the league.
But the 2008 Lynchburg softball team had its NCAA Division III regional experience the year prior -- the first NCAA tournament berth in program history -- and they came back hungry for more.
"The group that came back home after getting a taste of that worked really hard," Lynchburg head coach Dawn Simmons remembered. "They were led by that experience and that work ethic. It was like a different gear."
The 2008 Hornets won a school-record 39 games and reached the Division III World Series -- one of the last eight teams in the country. It was the first time in the institution's history that a Lynchburg team reached the final weekend of an NCAA tournament.
That 2008 softball team will be immortalized in Lynchburg athletics lore as a Lynchburg Sports Hall of Fame Team of Distinction at tonight's Alumni Awards Dinner, set for 6:30 p.m. in Burton Dining Hall, and alumni who wish to attend can register here.
"Is this really happening?" then-senior third baseman Elizabeth Perkins remembered thinking as the team got off the bus at Salem's Moyer Sports Complex.
It was the same site at which the Lynchburg team captured an ODAC title earlier that season -- the same place many of those Hornets grew up playing travel ball tournaments for countless years -- but something about the national championships was different.
"It wasn't ODACs. It wasn't even regionals," Lynchburg assistant coach Audra Della Rosa, a sophomore outfielder on that team, recalled. "It definitely was the big stage."
And that coming from a team that played on big stages already that season. The Hornets rolled through the conference tournament, starting with a four-home run first inning in the tournament opener against Bridgewater in a 15-7 win, and ending with a 4-1 championship win over Virginia Wesleyan.
"That momentum definitely took us into postseason," Simmons said.
The team then defeated nationally ranked opponents in LaGrange, Neumann, and Ursinus at the regional tournament.
"We were confident all year," Perkins said. "We did all buy in."
But that confidence came before the ODAC title, before the regional run. It came from knowing that they'd worked harder and longer in the preseason than any other team in the nation. There was a running joke in Lynchburg softball: if it was light enough to see, you'd be on the field.
"I can remember a time when you had your helmet on hitting, and there's icicles forming on your helmet," Perkins said.
It worked out for her to the tune of an All-American and ODAC player of the year season; the senior hit .425 with 11 home runs and 49 RBI in the season.
Perkins, center fielder Brittany Allsop, first baseman Tara Campbell, and pitcher Katie Bruce were all-region selections.
Bruce, a freshman, paired with Barbie Miles as a dominant one-two punch in the circle. Remembering her first collegiate season (in which she was ODAC pitcher of the year), Bruce said the key was going into collegiate ball without expectations.
"I wanted to prove to my team that I could be whatever role they needed me to play," Bruce said. "That actually helped. I didn't have a bar set. … I went in calm and collected because I'm there to do my job. I don't really have anything to compare it to."
It worked to the tune of a 1.61 earned run average and 16 complete games.
The team performed admirably in the tournament but fell 1-0 to No. 7 Muskingum and 4-0 to No. 6 Ithaca to be eliminated.
But that's not the story of the 2008 season that the team remembers. Instead, it's the practices that went deep into the night, or the pregame ritual of turning the music up and rocking the charter bus before disembarking for a ballgame.
It was fun.
"The most memorable part was the fact that we had the best chemistry," Bruce recalled. "Our senior leaders were so strong, so welcoming and open. And I think their attitudes cascaded all the way down to us as freshmen. It was a very dynamic and inclusive team."
And in the numerous times they've been together since -- from graduations to weddings to the birth of children -- that chemistry remained.
"Most of the time it's like nothing's changed," Perkins said.
This is the fifth and final piece in a series of features on the 2018 Lynchburg Sports Hall of Fame Class, which ran on LynchburgSports.com Monday, Oct. 15-Friday, Oct. 19 in the week leading up to its induction.