One of the greatsSara Jane Webster is leaving a legacy at Dickinson State — and it’s one that won’t soon be forgotten.
By: Dustin Monke, The Dickinson Press
Sara Jane Webster is leaving a legacy at Dickinson State — and it’s one that won’t soon be forgotten.
Four years ago, Webster moved 1,500 away from her home in suburban Los Angeles to play softball for the Blue Hawks. She wasn’t even sure if she’d see playing time.
Today, Webster leads the Blue Hawks into the final postseason of a record-setting career in which she not only helped transform a program but, some believe, an entire conference.
On Wednesday afternoon before practice, Webster paused to reflect on her time at DSU. After a brief silence, she laughed and exclaimed, “I’m going to start crying.”
There is a lot for her to process.
There are the 75 wins and 816 strikeouts. There are the three consecutive trips to the NAIA national tournament, including the 2009 season which saw the Blue Hawks fall one win short of the national title game. There are her three NAIA All-America selections. There are the trials and tribulations she and the Blue Hawks endured when three of their teammates passed away.
Webster hopes the ride continues through the end of the month. She leads the top-seeded Blue Hawks into the Dakota Athletic Conference tournament today and Saturday in Minot. For the 24th-ranked Blue Hawks to return to the national tournament, they have to win the conference title on Saturday.
“I’m just pretty happy overall with everything that’s happened here at DSU the last four years,” Webster said.
Career highs and lows
Regardless if the Blue Hawks make it to nationals or not, Webster has constructed a career to remember.
When the season ends and the dust settles, the three-time DAC pitcher of the year will own every important school pitching record and, with the DAC set to dissolve after the 2012 season, has a good chance of owning most conference records.
A spunky California blonde away from the softball diamond, Webster turns into a no-nonsense ballplayer when she puts on a uniform and steps onto the dirt.
When she has a ball or a bat in hand, Webster is all business.
“She says all the time before games that she’s completely different on the field than she’s off of it,” DSU junior third baseman Jessica Huseby said. “She’s a goofball. She’s crazy. She gets on the field and she’s completely different. You don’t talk to her in any goofy way. She puts on her game face.”
That demeanor has helped take a program that was winning consistently on a regional level and make it a national title contender.
“Dickinson State was just barely peaking onto the national level and she has put us there for the last four years,” said Blue Hawks head coach Kristen Fleury, a former DSU player who was in her first year as the team’s assistant coach during Webster’s freshman season. “She’s obviously one of the best athletes to go through the softball program here and she’s done a lot for this university. She set the standard of excellence for where our program wants to be, where we want to continue to be at.”
As a sophomore, Webster shattered school records when she struck out 331 batters and compiled a 28-4 record to help the Blue Hawks to a third-place finish at the NAIA national tournament. At the plate, she hit .381 with seven home runs and 37 RBI.
That season, while unbelievably memorable, may have been the apex of Webster’s career.
“I set myself up real high that year,” Webster said. “It’s kind of hard to do what I did (three) years in a row. It’s really hard to meet those same standards every year. Each season is different. I had my best pitching year sophomore year and my best hitting year my junior year.
Last season, she had career highs of 12 homers and 46 RBI while batting .361.
Her senior season hasn’t been all she hoped for either. She’s batting a career-worst .271 with four homers and 21 RBI.
However, in the pitcher’s circle, she’s bounced back from a rough start. She had mixed results against several top-ranked teams during the Blue Hawks’ spring break trip to California. However, since the DAC season began, she has reemerged as one of the NAIA’s best pitchers.
“She came into this season with a lot of expectations for herself,” Fleury said. “We played some tough competition early where she kind of had to take a step back and go back to her fundamentals instead of trying to push so hard and try so hard. She got out of her realm in throwing her game and, at the plate, just tried to press too much. She came back from California and she kind of refocused and figured some things out that worked for her and she’s been solid ever since the conference (season began). Hopefully that’s going to continue throughout the conference tournament.”
Webster’s career at DSU has had ripple effect in the DAC, some believe.
After DSU’s 2009 season, Fleury and Webster believe other teams in the conference felt compelled to improve their talent level. It happened, too.
Last year, the Blue Hawks lost the conference tournament to Minot State and getting through the conference this year has been no picnic.
“The competition has gotten a lot better since I’ve been here,” Webster said. “It was easy to pitch to teams my freshman and sophomore year. Now, the teams are better. It challenges me in the circle to battle with each batter. It’s not as easy as it used to be.”
Jamestown College coach Kevin Gall, who has been coaching his team for 11 seasons, said the DAC has been forced to improve in recent years.
“When it comes to the teams we have now in our conference compared to 2003, 2004, I think up and down the conference, we’re better teams,” Gall said.
Destiny in Dickinson
Webster believes her choice to come to DSU may have been destiny.
“It’s weird. A lot of people ask, ‘Why did you go to Dickinson? You’re from California,’” Webster said. “I really think people go places for a reason.”
Between her sophomore and junior years, Webster mulled leaving DSU for an opportunity to pitch at NCAA Division I Texas Tech. But, less than a month before school was set to resume, she made her intentions known.
“My heart’s truly in Dickinson and I love my team,” Webster said on Aug. 1, 2009. “I can’t picture playing on the field without them.”
She would have never expected her return to have the impact it did.
When her teammates Kyrstin Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson drowned as the result of an automobile accident outside of Dickinson in November 2009, a national spotlight was thrust upon the team. It shined on Webster more than most.
Never much of a public speaker, she says, the team captain had to take the podium at remembrance and funeral services while also being interviewed by national news programs.
“It was a turning point in growing up for everybody involved,” Fleury said. “She stepped up and did what she had to do.”
Webster’s impact has extended beyond her softball team, too. She has taken great pleasure in teaching youth softball players in the Dickinson Diamonds fastpitch leagues.
Webster coaches teams and gives private pitching and hitting lessons. Fleury, also a California native, said many DSU players do the same in an effort to bring what they learned in their home state — where girls fastpitch softball is an established sport — to Dickinson.
“I want those kids to experience what I did,” Webster said.
Webster will be around town at least another year, she says. She has one year to go in DSU’s nursing program and plans to be the Blue Hawks’ pitching coach next season while continuing her assistance with youth teams.
But before that happens, she wants to get the Blue Hawks back to the national tournament one last time.
Webster is confident they’ll get the job done.
“I think we’ve all been playing pretty well lately, starting off slow and fitting all our conference games into three weeks, it was tough,” she said. “To take one positive thing out of it is we’re all getting in a groove. We’ve all found our hitting groove more than defense and we’ve all been hitting well. As long as we carry that into the tournament, we’ll be fine.”