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Don Owen: Denied NCAA title, near-perfect NKU softball produced supernatural season in 2005

The nickname seemed perfect. Just like the squad that appeared destined for a historic finish to a mind-boggling season of absolute perfection.

The Supernaturals.

That’s the nickname. It’s the only way to describe what was happening in 2005, when Northern Kentucky University’s softball team owned a 55-0 record. The Norse had shattered every collegiate softball record for winning streaks and unbeaten starts. They’d also captured the Great Lakes Valley Conference title and the regional championship.

No team in collegiate softball history had ever finished unbeaten and national champions. NKU, though, was sprinting toward perfection and the NCAA title.

The NKU softball team captured the NCAA Division II Great Lakes Region title with a 2-0 win over Northwood (Mich.) on May 14, 2005. The Norse improved to 53-0 with that victory.

“This was a special group of players — ones you are so fortunate to have had the privilege to coach,” recalled former NKU head coach Kathy Stewart. “They drove the bus, I just gave them the keys.”

Now, after dispatching St. Mary’s (Texas) by a 3-0 score in the second round of the NCAA Division II World Series in Salem, Va., that steamroller of a bus stood just two victories away from claiming the national championship. St. Mary’s — which entered the game hailed as the nation’s top power-hitting squad — managed just a pinch-hit single against NKU pitcher Krystal Lewallen.

It marked the 32nd win of the season for Lewallen, who recorded 10 strikeouts against St. Mary’s. It would also be her final victory in an NKU uniform — even though she was just a junior.

The NKU players and coaches headed back to the hotel after beating St. Mary’s on that Friday night with a 55-0 record. They would enjoy a day off on Saturday, and then play Lynn (Fla.) at noon on Sunday in a winner’s bracket game. The winner of that game would be just one victory away from the NCAA Division II national championship.

Incredibly, NKU stood just two wins shy of an unbeaten season.

“I couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Jane Meier, who built NKU’s athletic program into a powerhouse at the NCAA Division II level during her 21 years as athletic director. “It was unfathomable in either softball or baseball because of the nature of those sports. You could lose a game on a bad hop. The line between winning and losing in sports like baseball and softball is extremely thin.”


“No one is going to beat NKU twice in a day.”

That’s the thought that raced through my mind that evening as we finished our internet radio broadcast. I was NKU’s sports information director at the time, but the SID softball contact that season was actually student assistant John Rasp. He did the statistics and oversaw operations at softball home games. He organized the game workers, reported the results, updated the website and did everything else associated with an SID’s duties. He even did radio play-by-play.

I tagged along simply because the media interest had grown exponentially. I even assured John that he was the primary contact. I was just there to do color on the radio and assist with the media. Plus, I wanted to see NKU cap an unbeaten season with a national championship.

As we finished our postgame duties after the win over St. Mary’s, I started thinking about all the nicknames University of Kentucky basketball squads had been given over the years after memorable seasons. The Unforgettables. The Comeback Cats. Rupp’s Runts. The Fiddlin’ Five.

NKU’s Becky Napier batted .356 with a team-leading 13 doubles in 2005.

This NKU softball team needed a nickname, I thought. If they finish unbeaten, I reasoned, it’s beyond comprehension in a sport such as softball or baseball. There are way too many games to go unbeaten. Too many factors to overcome. It’s impossible. It’s….

The Supernaturals.

That’s the nickname I’d chosen to use if NKU completed the unbeaten season. It appeared to be a fitting label for a group that was on the verge of pulling off a near-impossible feat. And not just for winning.

The NKU softball team had attracted a beat writer and photographer from The Enquirer to cover the entire NCAA Division II World Series. Several weeks earlier, USA Today had requested daily updates on NKU’s winning streak. TKR Cable sports director Don Weber was on site to cover the event in Virginia. Every TV station in the Cincinnati market requested video highlights of NKU’s World Series games.

And, most memorable for me as SID, an official with The Kentucky Post newspaper — for many years the primary source of print media coverage for the entire Northern Kentucky region but at that point preparing to cease publishing in 2007 — called my cellphone on that Saturday. He alerted me they would be there with a reporter and photographer on Monday for the national championship game if NKU advanced. They needed hotel information and apologized for having not been there to cover the opening two games of the World Series. It was surreal.

The Supernaturals.

All they had to do was beat Lynn (Fla.) on Sunday, and Monday promised to be a glorious day for NKU. Unfortunately, and unknown to everyone at NKU and the NCAA, Lynn concealed a pair of secret weapons that would derail the unbeaten streak and halt that steamroller of a bus. And these secret weapons turned out to be two players from Australia — one of whom was later declared ineligible by the NCAA — that would slay The Supernaturals.

But that isn’t really the story. It’s a small sub-plot that would morph into something much larger — and massively unfortunate — when the NCAA discovered the eligibility problems at Lynn after the fact.


Less than a month earlier, on April 27, 2005, something very interesting happened. First, Shannon Russell of The Enquirer called my office and said she was driving up to Ashland, Ohio, to cover the NKU softball doubleheader against Ashland University. NKU owned a 40-0 record and needed just one victory to set the all-time NCAA Division II record for most consecutive wins to begin a season.

An hour later, Don Weber called and said he was also making the trip to Ashland to cover the doubleheader. I joined the iconic television reporter for the three-hour drive to Northeast Ohio, where it was brutally cold that afternoon. Weber had covered sports in Northern Kentucky since the 1980s, but this was something totally new for him.

“It was the first time that I traveled outside of Highland Heights to cover an NKU softball game,” Weber said, recalling the trip to Ashland. “The streak brought more Cincinnati TV stations to come out to cover Norse softball than ever before.”

The NKU softball team is pictured on April 27, 2005, after completing a doubleheader sweep with a 10-1 win against Ashland to improve to 42-0. NKU won the opener, 2-1.

NKU didn’t disappoint. The Norse swept the doubleheader, taking Game 1 by a 2-1 score and then capping the sweep with a 10-1 victory. The Norse improved to 41-0 with the opening-game victory and became the only softball team in Division II history to win 41 straight.

Chip Gregg, NKU’s assistant coach at the time, said after sweeping Ashland that he believed the Norse could pull off the impossible. “I thought after winning that first game in Ashland, that made us unbeatable,” he recalled. “It rained the whole way to Ashland. We were not sure if the games would be played. Ashland was always tough, and especially at their place.

“I remember Ashland looked like they didn’t want to play the second game because they were so close to stopping us in the opener.”

As a result of sweeping Ashland that afternoon, NKU stood 42-0. They were perfect and ranked No. 1 nationally in the Division II poll. They also carried a gigantic target on their jerseys.

“After they set the record, I was a little torn between wanting NKU to go into the tournament unbeaten, or maybe seeing them lose a game before the end of the regular season,” Weber recalled. “A loss might have taken some pressure off of NKU. The law of averages also figured into it.”

Meier agreed with Weber. “I actually did think a regular-season loss might not be such a bad thing,” she said.

Not with this NKU team. The top-ranked Norse completed the regular season unbeaten (46-0) and entered the GLVC Tournament eyeing the University Arizona’s all-time collegiate mark of 47 consecutive wins from April 5, 1996 to March 23, 1997.

In the second round of the GLVC Tournament at East Peoria, Ill., Angie Lindeman went 3-for-4 and knocked in three runs as the Norse improved to 48-0 with a 7-0 victory over Lewis to break Arizona’s all-time collegiate record for consecutive wins. NKU wrapped up the GLVC title with two close wins against Wisconsin-Parkside and moved to 50-0. That’s 50 games, 50 wins, zero losses.

“I don’t remember thinking about being undefeated, at least not in that term,” recalled Ricki Rothbauer-Stubbs, who earned All-America honors as NKU’s leadoff hitter that season. “It was just that the team expected to win every day and the wins kept adding up.”

The Supernaturals.


The winning streak reached 51 on May 12 as NKU pounded out a 9-1 victory over Ferris State in the opening round of the NCAA Division II Great Lakes Regional at Highland Heights. The largest crowd to ever watch a softball home game at NKU (conservatively estimated at 452 — those who paid admission at the gate — but probably closer to 600) was treated to an 18-hit attack by the Norse.

NKU’s Frank Ignatius Grein Softball Field is equipped with bleacher and ground-level seating for approximately 500 fans. But people were standing down the lines and even behind the outfield wall to watch NKU defeat Ferris State in the Great Lakes Regional opener on a beautiful afternoon.

“A number of people wanted to see if NKU could remain unbeaten,” Meier said. “People were intrigued by the winning streak, plus it was also the NCAA Tournament. We had great weather that day. NKU had won 50 consecutive games. It was a nice combination and generated a great deal of interest. It was the biggest crowd I ever saw at an NKU softball game.”

NKU cruised past Southern Illinois Edwardsville the following afternoon by a 2-0 score. Though NKU and SIUE were fierce GLVC rivals, it marked the first time the teams had played in 2005. The Cougars had been scheduled to visit NKU two weeks earlier for a doubleheader, but those games were canceled due to a forecast of inclement weather.

Now, the weather again turned nasty for the third day of the regional. Storms moved into the Greater Cincinnati area and drenched the Frank Ignatius Grein Softball Field overnight. There was even concern the remainder of the regional might be washed out.

NKU players celebrate after the final out of their 2-0 victory against Northwood (Mich.) on May 14, 2005.

Despite heavy rains and lightning that forced several delays, the elimination game — originally scheduled for 10 a.m. — eventually began at 2:30 p.m. Northwood (Mich.) survived by defeating SIUE and took aim at NKU’s winning streak. The fifth-seeded Timberwolves, though, had no chance against the Norse.

With a few dark clouds still hovering above Highland Heights, NKU repeated as Great Lakes Region champion later that evening — the game ended at 6:50 p.m. — with a 2-0 win over Northwood. Lewallen hurled a three-hit shutout and struck out nine batters, while NKU took advantage of four Northwood errors to push across a pair of unearned runs.

Lindeman, Megan Owens, Heather Cotner, Stephanie Leimbach and Rachele Vogelpohl each were named to the Great Lakes Region All-Tournament Team along with Lewallen, who was named the most valuable player of the regional for the second straight year.

Not even terrible weather could halt the NKU victory bus. The Norse were headed to the NCAA Division II World Series with a 53-0 record. They were four wins away from pulling off what everyone had assumed what was impossible.

“We had it all, pitching, hitting and defense,” Gregg said.

“I look back 15 year later and can tell you that they had a combination of great talent, great coaching and outstanding leadership on that team,” Meier added.

NKU also featured a roster filled with eligible players. The same could not be said of a certain team from the state of Florida that awaited the Norse in Virginia.


Lynn University is located in Boca Raton, a city on the southeastern coast of Florida. Boca Raton is known for golf, beautiful beaches and warm weather. It’s no wonder that Lynn’s sports programs have captured 25 national championships with that type of recruiting base.

It also helps when a head coach intentionally breaks NCAA rules.

At the 2005 NCAA Division II World Series, Lynn defeated San Francisco State and Bloomsburg (Pa.) to set up the showdown with NKU on May 22. The Fighting Knights featured senior pitcher Aimee Murch, a native of Australia who hurled shutouts against San Francisco State and Bloomsburg.

Another Australian, freshman center fielder Danielle Curcio, gave Lynn a solid leadoff batter with power. Curcio would eventually provide the biggest hit of the World Series — at the expense of Lewallen and NKU.

Rachele Vogelpohl is congratulated after hitting a home run against Le Moyne.

While Lynn cruised into the winner’s bracket with two easy wins, NKU needed late-inning heroics in the opener. Prior to knocking off St. Mary’s, NKU had literally squeezed past Le Moyne (N.Y.), 2-1, in the first round of the World Series. Lindeman’s suicide squeeze in the bottom of the seventh inning drove in Vogelpohl with the winning run.

With the bases loaded and one out, Lindeman laid down a bunt to the first-base side of the mound that was fielded by Le Moyne pitcher Sarah Reed. Vogelpohl, who had taken off from third base, slid in safely ahead of Reed’s throw.

Vogelpohl scored both NKU runs to key the win. After Le Moyne had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the third inning, Vogelpohl responded by smashing a towering shot over the left-field fence to tie the game at 1-1. Lewallen outdueled Reed for the victory, and the powerful right-hander completely shut down St. Mary’s the following night.

That set the stage for NKU to face Lynn on a Saturday afternoon at the James Moyer Sports Complex. The winner of that game would advance to the championship round, needing just one victory to claim the NCAA Division II national title.
As it turned out, neither team would emerge with a victory. Or, to be more precise, earn a win that would actually exist in historical records.


It ended quietly on a partly sunny afternoon. After 55 consecutive wins, NKU’s steamrolling victory bus was halted on May 22. Murch outdueled Lewallen for a 1-0 victory. Curcio accounted for the only run of the game with a third-inning home run off Lewallen, a drive over the fence in left-center field.

Murch tossed a five-hit shutout and struck out 12 batters as Lynn snapped the longest winning streak in collegiate softball history. In the double-elimination format, NKU was forced to play Kennesaw State immediately after the loss to Lynn. The shell-shocked Norse were unable to recover and dropped a 6-0 decision to the Owls — a team NKU had defeated 5-0 earlier in the season.

“They were devastated by that first loss,” Meier recalled. “That group entered the World Series with big expectations. The loss against Lynn was really difficult for them to handle, having to play Kennesaw State that same day.”

The Supernaturals were indeed mortals.


The following day, Lynn captured the 2005 NCAA Division II national championship with a 5-3 win over Kennesaw State. But two years later, on July 17, 2007, the NCAA announced Lynn had used two ineligible players during the 2005 season and would vacate its national championship. The Fighting Knights forfeited 54 wins that season, including the triumph over NKU.

Ricki Rothbauer batted .394 with nine triples and 48 runs scored.

The reason? The NCAA discovered then-head coach Thomas Macera made improper payments to a pair of Lynn players. The NCAA also found Macera provided misleading information and asked one of the ineligible players to not disclose the payment during the investigation.

“The violations that we saw involved in this case were of major consequence and proportion,” said Bruce Kirsh, chairman of NCAA Division II Committee on Infractions.

The committee stated in the report that it was “troubled” by Macera’s intentional violations and “his continuing deceit.” In addition, the committee said Macera “completely disregarded her well-being and his responsibility to act as a role model” by asking one of the players to give misleading information about the payments. (Click here for 2007 NCAA report)

As a result of these actions, the committee charged Macera with unethical conduct. Macera bolted from Lynn after just one season to become the head coach at Valdosta State, which rationalized his hiring by stating, “Prior to the NCAA handing down its summary disposition in March, Valdosta State had already implemented university sanctions and an aggressive NCAA rules compliance education program for Coach Macera.”

“I was upset they cheated and, thankfully, they were caught,” Meier said of Lynn vacating the national championship, “but we were the ones who paid the consequences in that World Series loss. It wasn’t right.”

To the school’s credit, Lynn self-reported Macera’s violations and did not appeal the NCAA’s decision. The school also withheld Curcio from the first 30 percent of the 2006 season as part of its self-imposed sanctions. The Australian outfielder missed the opening 15 games of 2006, with her first appearance of that season coming on March 8.

What about the other ineligible player? While the NCAA wouldn’t disclose a name, much of the speculation focused on Murch — who finished her eligibility after the 2005 season. Murch then left the United States and played professional softball in Italy for several years. She also became a member of the Australian women’s softball national team.

“It was very disappointing learning that Lynn had used two ineligible players in that tournament,” Weber said. “You just wonder if they did not have those players, would NKU have prevailed and went on to win the national title.”

Emily Breitholle, a senior pitcher on that NKU squad, wasn’t happy with the news that Lynn had used ineligible players. “When I heard about Lynn having their title revoked, I was livid,” Breitholle said. “I know all of us were so angry and felt like we had been (robbed) of advancing in the championship.

“Had [Lynn’s eligibility issues] been figured out sooner, who knows how the end of our season would have went? I’d like to think we would’ve captured the national championship.”

Krystal Lewallen’s dominating presence in the circle keyed NKU’s record-breaking 55-0 start. She finished the 2005 season with a 32-1 record.

Officially, Lynn’s victory over NKU never happened. Reality, though, supersedes the NCAA records.

“It’s very unfortunate to have had a situation like that,” Stewart said. “You trust that there is a level playing field, and if not, that the ‘good guys’ win. But that was not the case.”

Added Rothbauer-Stubbs: “I remember hearing that Lynn’s championship was vacated, and I had all the normal ‘would have/could have/should have’ thoughts. It was easy to be angry and sad.”

Now the softball head coach at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Rothbauer-Stubbs put the entire saga in perspective. “I knew we couldn’t go back — there was no righting that wrong,” she said. “I was raised to believe that sports are about building and revealing character, so the whole ordeal made me a lot prouder of our team, knowing that we all did things the right way.”

As if ending the season with two straight losses wasn’t enough, more bad news awaited NKU later in the summer. Lewallen, the NCAA Division II National Player of the Year, announced she wanted to play at the Division I level in her final season of eligibility. She transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette and posted a 24-8 record with a 1.95 run average for the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2006.


Fifteen years have passed since the supernatural journey ended in Virginia. NKU now competes at the NCAA Division I level. The Norse have posted just one winning season since making the jump to Division I during the 2012-13 academic year.

Stewart, who departed NKU in 2015 as the softball program’s all-time career leader with 494 victories, retired from teaching in the Dayton (Ky.) Independent School system last year. She recently utilized modern technology to celebrate the 15th anniversary of NKU’s record-setting 41st win with her former players.

Rachele Vogelpohl slides in safely to score the winning run against Le Moyne.

“Having had a Zoom meeting with them, they all look the same and I still see them as the college versions of themselves,” Stewart said, “but all have impressive resumes — as working women, wives, and mothers. Again, seeing them on the screen and hearing about their jobs, it is no wonder we had the success we had.

“They were — and are — a very driven group of young women. I was extremely fortunate to have coached them.”

Breitholle said she still keeps in touch with several of her former teammates, and the conversations inevitably return to that season. “It’s all so bittersweet,” she said. “We loved every moment of that season and are proud of what we accomplished, but it’s hard to accept we made it that far and didn’t end up 57-0.”

“Every year there’s a winner,” Breitholle added, “but not every year is there a team that holds a record like we do, and that I’m proud to have.”

What about the nickname? It seemed perfect until that afternoon at the James Moyer Sports Complex, when history was wiped out in the worst possible scenario. The players and coaches at NKU deserved better. So did every team that lost to Lynn on the softball field that season. So did the Lynn players who had no idea of their coach’s unethical conduct. But that’s another story.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to reinstate the nickname. And the 2005 Norse softball team can officially begin using it when they are eventually — and deservedly — inducted into the NKU Athletics Hall of Fame.

The Supernaturals.


Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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