Christopher Newport's softball players apparently resolved those nagging team-unity issues.
Asked if they were surprised to make the NCAA Division III championship tournament, teammates Jessie Atkinson, Jen Falin and Whitney Haller nodded simultaneously and vigorously.
"We had so many new people this season, that in the beginning I don't think we bonded very well as a team," Atkinson said. "We didn't play very well at the beginning of the year, and there were times we didn't play very well during the season."
Someone flipped a switch after they crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The Captains were seeded fifth out of eight teams at the regional, yet were clearly the best bunch there.
Highlights included Falin's walk-off grand slam in the 13th inning for a 7-3 win against top-seeded and No. 2-ranked Emory, which previously had lost two games all season; Haller's complete-game pitching performance that gave Falin, a former Bruton High star, a chance to be the hero; Falin's second grand slam one day later, which was the deciding blow in a 7-3 win against host Salisbury; a 19-3 exclamation point Sunday versus the Sea Gulls that vaulted CNU to the D-III Elite Eight for the second consecutive season.
"I don't think I've seen our team play that well since I've been here," said Atkinson, the senior third baseman who leads the Captains in batting (.433), hits (55), home runs (15) and slugging (.843). "Last year's team was good, but we knew we were good. This was different. It wasn't just one person that stepped up, everybody stepped up."
Though CNU (35-10) ended up in the same place as a year ago, the journeys couldn't have been more different.
Last year's upperclass-heavy team was low-maintenance, internally motivated and policed, and competed as if on a mission. This year's squad was at times a study in collective attention-deficit disorder.
Credit that to youth and players being asked to assume new roles. By the end of the season, the Captains fielded an everyday lineup that included four freshmen and a sophomore. The sophomore tandem of Townsend and Haller rotated on the mound and took the place of all-conference hurler Kristen Rowe.
"Every team has ups and downs and faces periods of adversity," CNU coach Keith Parr said. "Some are shorter than others. We had prolonged periods this year. … We were searching. It was a little more of a roller-coaster ride."
Understand that the Captains' shortcomings and criticisms are relative — products of high expectations and sustained excellence.
CNU has been to five consecutive NCAA tournaments under Parr, whose teams have won at a tidy 78-percent clip and have won at least 33 games per season during the present stretch.
The Captains finished atop the USA South conference regular-season standings and won 16 consecutive games late in the season.
"I still don't feel like we played great softball," Atkinson said. "We just did enough things to win."
As if to drive home Atkinson's point, the win streak came to an end in the conference tournament, where the Captains lost back-to-back games to a Shenandoah team they had beaten handily three times prior.
"One of those days," Parr said.
The Captains then had more than three weeks to stew about the losses, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. They finished classes and exams, had some team time and me time, and were able to focus on softball without the backdrop of school — especially valuable for the younger players.
Where last year's team was consistently stout and seemed to run out of gas at the nationals, this year's group has a vibe that the last couple of months was preparation and that forces are converging at the right time.
It doesn't hurt that the nationals are at the Moyer Complex in Salem, which is relatively close to home for most of the players and a site at which many of them have competed in the past.
"From the beginning of the season, the national championship is always our goal," Atkinson said. "I think if we play like we did this past weekend, I don't know that anybody can beat us."
Something else they all agree upon.
Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Read his blog at dailypress.com/fromthetarpit