Former Western Nebraska Community College softball players Bianca Duran and Jessica Ball grew up playing softball against each other in high school. Now, the two former WNCC Cougars are living the dream of every softball player and playing in the NCAA Division I softball national tournament on the same team but in different capacities.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," Duran, who is an assistant coach at LA Tech and also played for the Lady Techsters, said. "Coach Maria Winn [former WNCC coach] is a huge part of why Jessica and I were able to play at the next level. Then to have Coach Mark Montgomery, who chose us both to play for him, and myself to coach with him, it's an opportunity we take great pride in. Jessica and I not only come from the same area in Colorado and played at the same schools [WNCC and LA Tech], but we grew up playing against one another. So, to be taking this journey together that not everyone gets to experience is something we will never forget."
Playing in the Division I softball tournament is exactly what the two former Cougars will be doing this weekend when they lead their Louisiana Tech University softball into the Tuscaloosa Regional.
LA Tech earned the No. 3 seed in the Tuscaloosa Regional and will face No. 2 Minnesota at 12:30 MST on Friday. The game is scheduled to be on ESPNU. The other matchup in the regional has No. 1 Alabama facing No. 4 Albany in the double elimination tournament where the winner will advance to the Super Regionals.
"To be able to play in the NCAA National Tournament is truly a blessing and is truthfully every little girls dream," Ball, who is a senior at LA Tech and played for the Cougars in 2014 and 2015, said. "For me, to be able to play in it for my senior year, it is just so amazing and I just want to thank God for letting my team and I have this opportunity. We are such a family this year and for us to win conference and go to regionals is so amazing."
It has been a while since LA Tech has appeared in the national tournament; 2008 to be exact. The Techsters earned that right after winning the Conference USA tournament with a dramatic 1-0 win over Florida International University, who beat LA Tech in four previous meetings.
Duran said the team worked hard and deserves it.
"It's an opportunity that I couldn't be more grateful for," Duran, who played for WNCC in 2012 and 2013, said. "Especially being an alumni here myself and dedicating so much time into the program as an athlete and to now be a part of it as a coach is something I will cherish forever."
It won't be an easy road to winning the Tuscaloosa Region, either, especially with perennial national power Alabama in the field. But Ball said they just need to worry about themselves on the field.
"What we have to do to win the regional tournament is truthfully just be ourselves and go out and play some ball," she said. "We are looked at as the underdogs so we have nothing to lose. That means we go out and leave everything on the field every game we play this weekend. I believe, if we stay together as a family and play together as one, we have a chance to beat anyone."
LA Tech definitely doesn't have anything to lose heading into the tournament. In fact, LA Tech might be one of the more dangerous teams in the tournament after the fight they showed in the Conference USA tournament, where they battled back for the title, fighting through the elimination bracket. Tech won three games in a 24-hour period, including wins over Conference USA regular season champions Marshall and No. 2 seed Florida International.
Duran said the Lady Techsters said the heart and fight they showed at the conference tournament makes this team special.
"We have to play as one and leave it all on the field," Duran said. "This team is so talented and has so much heart that if we go down there and play with everything we've got there's no reason we can't win the regional."
Duran, who was a standout pitcher for LA Tech after she left here, is excited to be a part of the coaching staff that she played for, while helping mold the players to be better players and people.
"Coaching at this level is something amazing," Duran said. "I'm able to share my passion and love for the game on a daily basis and help young women grow not only on the field but off. No day is ever the same. It's challenging at times but most of all rewarding knowing I'm giving back to a sport that opened the door to so many opportunities for me."
Ball said Duran especially helped her succeed in Louisiana.
"It is so special to be able to go to nationals with Bianca. I love the girl," Ball said. "I have trusted to follow in her steps to go to WNCC, which was the absolute best two years of my life and then to also follow her here to Tech. Her coming back to coach me has been amazing because she's always pushing everyone to be better and always making sure we are improving. I love Bianca and will always have a friendship with her after this, so to share this experience with her is amazing."
This season, Ball is hitting .293 with 15 runs scored, 16 RBIs, and two home runs. She has appeared in 48 games and started 25.
Ball said she couldn't have asked for anything more from her senior season.
"My season has gone amazing and I truthfully owe it all to my amazing teammates because without them I don't know what I would be doing," she said. "Through the good and bad we have become a family and that has made everything so worth it. Also Coach Bianca, who is my coach, but also my friend helped me so much during this year to keep me in line and focused! This is such an amazing senior year."
Duran and Ball both made that adjustment from junior college to Division I softball. Now, the two get to take in playing in the national tournament as one of 64 teams left to have a chance at a national title.
Ball said when you get to this level, everything matters in the game.
"Division 1 ball is different at this level because really every little thing matters. One error can cost a game and one at bat can change a game," she said. "That's what happened to us at conference when Pauline Tufi, our first basemen who is also my best friend, hit the home run in the 7th inning to put us on top against FIU. Every little detail matters in this division 1 level."