HANCOCK - Finlandia University President Philip Johnson, Athletic Director Chris Salani and a host of FU students gathered around Finlandia Hall Wednesday afternoon to send off the Lions softball team in style as they head to Clemmons, N.C. for their first Great South Athletic Conference Tournament beginning Friday.
Hugs, photos, high-fives and bottles of Gatorade to quench a thirst for the long trip were handed out indiscriminately as the Lions waved a smiling good-bye. The Finlandia Curling Club provided a bus-length poster trumpeting its support - the ladies gladly ran through it football style.
With the Lions seeded at No. 2 overall sporting a 21-6 record, Finlandia has a real chance to witness its first NCAA Tournament appearance if FU can emerge victorious over the three-day GSAC tournament. The hope and anticipation were palpable after Finlandia missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season in what was viewed a major snub from FU's point of view.
"This is what we have been building for all year long," Finlandia softball coach Shawn Hendrickson said. "We have marked this date since we started the season. This is do or die. There is no backing down to anybody so if we can get somebody on their jugular we are going to go after them."
Now comes the hard part.
There are several challenges the Lions must overcome to taste the postseason besides whatever obstacles the team across the field will provide.
Finlandia hasn't played a real game since March 25, giving them more than a full month between competitive action.
Weather conditions have wiped away four games over that span, leaving the team in an awkward state to try and perform at peak levels with nothing but practice in a gym to hone their skills.
"It has been a battle because we have lost a couple games (to weather) along the way," Hendrickson said. "You try to give yourself parameters for when you try and gear the team up again because you can't stay mentally focused for that long. It has been a battle, an up-and-down roller coaster."
Just playing on an actual field will be a change for the Lions as they haven't seen grass and sunshine since a trip to Florida in early March.
FU will have one practice to reacquaint itself with the outdoor surface before games start Friday.
"We have a practice Thursday afternoon. It will be good to see grass again," Hendrickson said.
Finally, the Lions atypical affiliation with the Great South Athletic Conference - emphasis on South - leaves FU with an 18-hour bus ride to try and shake off once they reach host Salem College.
"I don't know whether the bus drive is going to be a detriment or a positive," Hendrickson said. "I don't know if their bus legs will affect how we do stuff. But this has been a unique season and we can't use anything as an excuse. We have to get off the bus ready to play."
If they can rise above those challenges, however, the reward will be well worth the trip.
"We have been thinking about this for a long time," Hendrickson said. "They are college athletes - they will get themselves ready for this."