Becky Stenning has always been one to rely on quotes, some famous some not, to motivate her Judson University softball teams.
But this year's version of the Eagles doesn't need a quote, just a simple phrase, to have its record-setting season put into perspective.
"Teamwork is summed up in five simple words," says Stenning, now in her seventh season at the Elgin-based NAIA school.
"We believe in each other."
More than anything, Stenning's players have bought into that philosophy and the rewards have been rich. Judson is 31-13, tying the school record for wins in a season, and the Eagles finished 14-4 in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference, winning the program's first conference title in softball. They can set the school record for wins Monday when they host Carthage in a 4 p.m. doubleheader, but there's much more they want to achieve before the season comes to a close.
In addition to Stenning's patience and perseverance, at the forefront of the emergence of Judson becoming a viable school for the aspiring college player to consider has been the leadership of three seniors -- Nicole Dimiceli, Carrie Sensor and Kristin Krueger -- who have been the backbone of the program for the past four years.
"This senior class, and especially those three that have been with me for four years, they want it. And they have the talent to back it up," Stenning said.
Dimiceli, a Lake Park graduate, admits she didn't even want to come to Judson four years ago.
"It was my last pick," she said. "I wanted to go to a Christian college, it was close so my parents could see me play and the atmosphere here was good but I didn't expect it to be like it's been. I never expected to win here but any team can do that if you work at it."
Dimiceli, who is engaged to Judson baseball player Zac Phillips, has worked as hard as anyone. She is a three-time National Christian College All-American who has played and started in 196 games in her Judson career, setting school career records for hits (297), RBI (203), runs scored (174), doubles (61) and home runs (36). This season, she leads the team with a .473 batting average, 8 homers and 47 RBI.
"I always want to do well. That's always a goal," said Dimiceli, the team's catcher who is this year's Female Athlete of the Year at the school as well as the Female Student-Athlete of the Year and a Physical Education/Health major.
"I didn't expect to get all the accolades I have. I just put in a lot of time and hard work. Softball is another job."
Sensor, a Burlington Central product, has played in 201 games and started 200 for Stenning. A third baseman/shortstop her quickness and strong infield defense have been a cornerstone for the program's improvement. She holds the career record for at-bats and is second in runs scored, hits and stolen bases. And she says Judson's winning ways start with the bond the team has formed.
"We get along much better this year and we have a good team dynamic," said Sensor, who is hitting .358 this season with 1 home run and 23 RBI. "In past years we've had your typical girl issues but this year we have a strong support system on the bench and on the field.
"We have a solid lineup and when we're hitting we can be dangerous, and we've got talent at every position."
Dimiceli and Palatine graduate Krueger agree that a close team bond has been the key to success for the Eagles.
"We've got the talent and the team camaraderie," said Krueger, who has played 186 games at Judson. "We have really focused on that this semester especially. Be unified with one another. That's really helped us get to the next level.
"We always joke about trying to have swag. It's about knowing we can compete with the teams that have been above us in the past."
"We bond really well," Dimiceli said. "We have a feel for each other and we understand each other on and off the field."
Stenning said that coming into the season she felt she had a good hitting team, and the Eagles' .344 batting average has proved her correct. But the pitching has been a pleasant surprise, especially senior Sam Gladen of Cary-Grove and sophomore Sarah Boyer of McHenry, who have combined for 22 of the team's 31 wins. Freshman transfer Katie Talbot of Downers Grove South has also contributed to an improved pitching staff.
"The pitching has developed more than I anticipated," Stenning said. "And when we're hitting you better watch out we're unstoppable."
The Eagles, who will compete in the NCCAA national tournament in Virginia the week of May 9, will play in the CCAC tournament beginning Thursday at St. Xavier. The winner gets a trip to the NAIA World Series in Gulf Shores, Ala., the week of May 16. And as long as there's games to play, Sensor, for one, won't even think about the end.
"We won conference Monday night and we had practice at 10 a.m. Tuesday," she said. "Coach said it's awesome that we won but we have to keep on working. We know we have the potential to go all the way.
"Senior Night was Monday night and it didn't hit me. There were all the decorations and all of our teammates wrote us notes and it still didn't hit me. It won't be until I'm actually done that it will hit me and then it will hit me hard."
Stenning is happy to see her seniors get ready for the next step in their lives.
"These are my girls," she said. "They've stuck with me through thick and thin. They've become true leaders and they know about making good decisions. All the things they've had to learn they're now teaching the younger players. I'm just so excited for them to go out into the real world."
While Stenning won't let her team rest on its laurels, she does agree with one thing.
"It's just huge for us to be able to say we're conference champs," she said.
And there's no special quote needed to explain what that means to the future of the Judson softball program.