NORTH ANDOVER — In the spring of 2015, Elaine Schwager returned to the Merrimack softball program. During an early season practice, she asked the team a very blunt question.
“What’s your goal? What do you want to do here?” she said.
“I was trying not to step on too many toes, because at first I was just filling in,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what their answer was going to be, but I thought that was an important question.”
Schwager said the team told her they wanted to win a national championship.
“I told them that we needed to be realistic,” she said. “We weren’t practicing well, and I asked them if they thought the teams that wanted to win a national championship were practicing the way we were practicing at that time.”
That’s when, she said, something flipped.
(Ed. Note — This story also appears in Thursday’s Eagle Tribune. Click here to ready this story on EagleTribune.com)
A group of sophomores, who are now seniors, elevated their game. It wasn’t just elevating what they did on the field, though, it was about how they handled themselves off the field, in the weight room, and in preparation.
That summer, Schwager had the interim tag removed and was back as the full-time head coach, a position she held from 2006-11.
Then last season, the Warriors were back in the NE10 tournament, clinching a berth after winning three games on the final day of the regular season. After starting the season 6-17, the Warriors went 18-7 in April, including winning nine of their final 10 games. It was all part of the progression.
Something clearly clicked. Including this season, Merrimack is 50-19 in its last 69 games.
This season, the Warriors are 32-12 as they enter the Northeast 10 Championship this weekend. Merrimack is the No. 1 seed, and will receive a bye into the semifinals later today. The Warriors are hosting the tournament for the first time since 2002.
“Leadership has been such a huge part of why we have been successful this year,” Schwager said. “Our captains are great, and it’s that entire senior class. They took it upon themselves and they wanted to be in a position to do something special here. They told me that when they were sophomores, and since then, they’ve been leaders for us and they have put us in that position. They’ve really taken their leadership to a new level this year. They were good last year too, but sometimes it’s tough as juniors, you don’t want to step on your seniors. They’ve taken ownership this season.”
Merrimack is currently ranked No. 7 in the NCAA East Region. A win in the NE10 Tournament this weekend, which will feature the championship game on Saturday afternoon, would guarantee the Warriors a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
It would also give Merrimack its first conference championship since 2002. Merrimack’s 32 wins this season is already the most the program has posted since a 35-win campaign in 2004. The Warriors last made the NCAA Tournament in 2011 and last won the national championship during the 1994 season, when the team went 45-4.
Can this team do the same? It’s obviously a mighty task. But Schwager said that there’s something special about this group. Entering the playoffs, they’re not just happy to be part of it.
“Maybe last year we were just happy to be there,” she said. “We went on a great run at the end of the year and made it in, and I think we felt like that was an accomplishment. It was, but we might have been happy to be there and let up a little bit. You never know how the kids will react, but I don’t get that feeling this time. We’re excited with the success we had in the regular season, but I know this team wants to do a lot more than just make the NE10. That goes back to leadership. It’s a huge part of it. I know that we’re talented enough to do some special things, but talent is only going to get you half the way there. You need to have strong leaders and the right personality.
“Everyone’s goal is to win a championship. You ask any team at the beginning of the year, and that’s what they’ll say. It was one of our goals, but mainly we wanted to get better every single day. Work hard. We’ve been doing that and we keep doing that. No one is letting up, and that goes back to our leadership.”
Merrimack is getting a new field next season, meaning this NE10 Championship will be the final games played on the current Warrior Softball Diamond.
“It’s great just to be home,” Schwager said. “To get one more chance to play on our field is special. Also, just to get to sleep in our own beds, to be on our field, it’s exciting.”
Merrimack will play either Pace or Southern New Hampshire in the NE10 semifinal at 3 p.m. today. The championship game will be played at Merrimack at noon on Saturday.