Monday kicks off the NAIA national championship opening round in softball. The tournament will have 40 teams compete in a double-elimination format to determine the 10 spots in the 39th annual NAIA Softball World Series May 23-29. 

One of the teams in this year’s bracket is the Baker Wildcats. The Heart of America Athletic Conference regular season and tournament champion returns to the tournament after making it a year ago. It was the team’s first regular season title since 1982 and the first tournament title in program history for Baker. The Wildcats enter the tournament with a 45-7 record (30-4 HACC) and are the No. 2 seed in the Springfield Bracket of the tournament. 

One of the players on the team is sophomore Briele Rees.

The graduate from Lansing High School said it has felt “awesome” to be part of such a successful team this year.

“We worked so hard fall and winter,” Rees said. “It just feels really good to see our hard work pay off. And the fact that I get to do it with these girls just makes it so much better.”

Rees credits team chemistry and work ethic as the factors that led to the success. 

“We all work together really well,” she said. “And everyone works hard. Throughout the fall and winter, we just practiced every day and always gave 100%. That effort and chemistry was a big part (of the team’s success).”

Head coach Jamie Stanclift agreed that the work ethic was one of the factors to this season’s success. 

“I think the work ethic (has been a big factor),” Stanclift said. “As well as the team buying into the process, really being coachable and buying into the coaching. Those are big pieces.”

Stanclift also points to leadership as another factor.

“I think another significant component has been our leadership in our three seniors (Olivia Brees, Megan Porche and Rachel Wheeler) and Briele,” Stanclift said. “The way that they have led the team by example and the player-led accountability within the team has been very crucial to our success. I couldn’t ask for more. It’s the best leadership I have ever been a part of. Not just as a coach, but as a player too. It’s been a significant contributing factor this year.”

The coach said the three seniors are verbal leaders of the team and Rees uses her play to lead.

“Briele is not much of a verbal leader like our seniors,” Stanclift said. “She’s a little bit more soft-spoken. But man, her play really does all the talking. She really stepped up this year. She’s added a lot more power to her bat and has put up significant numbers for us in terms of RBIs and extra-base hits. She’s snuck a home run in there too. In left field, her range is just incredible. She garnered the Gold Glove for the whole conference at the left field position. They pick one player per position and she won that. She gets everything and lays her body on the line for so many memorable catches this season. And those are the kind of things Briele does to lead the team. It’s more with her play and performance on the field. She does all of the hustle plays that get the team fired up and momentum in our direction.”

Stanclift said this season has been rewarding to see the hard work of the team pay off. After building a team of “strong athletes and wonderful people,” Stanclift said everything has come full circle.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Stanclift said. “I am thrilled we get to see this keep on going. The team keeps getting better as we go. So as a coach, I don’t think you can ask for more. It’s just a ton of fun.”

Along with the strong leadership from Rees and the seniors, another area of success for Baker has been from Olivia Brees’ pitching. The senior from Meriden was recently named the pitcher of the year for the conference. Stanclift, who was named coach of the year, said Brees had all of the physical and intangibles to be a good college pitcher when she was recruited and has worked hard over the last four years with the mental game of pitching to get better and better each season. Stanclift said Brees has always been a pitcher of the year to her but Brees’ performance this year has earned the pitcher recognition the coach said is well deserved.

Prior to winning the conference tournament, both Rees and Stanclift said winning the conference tournament was their favorite moment so far this year. 

“Winning conference was one of the best moments in the last two years,” Rees said. “Probably one of the best feelings in the world. When that last pitch was thrown, it was for sure that we won and it was just that feeling of ‘finally we did it.’ All our hard work paid off and we finally got what we deserved.”

Stanclift agreed that was her favorite moment but the coach wanted to emphasize that it is her favorite so far.

“I think my favorite moment would be winning conference,” Stanclift said. “Winning at home on senior day in run-rule fashion. But I think we have to put the ‘dot dot dot’ at the end because I know that there are going to be some more favorite moments ahead.”

However the rest of the season goes, this year marks the final year the Lansing grad will play competitive softball. After playing softball since she was 4 or 5, Rees will hang up the cleats after this season. She was accepted into the nursing program at Baker. 

The program was one of the factors that made Rees pick Baker. Along with the school being close to home, Rees instantly fell in love with the campus and the team on her visit. With her plans to move on, Rees said she is trying to enjoy every moment.

“I’m just trying to enjoy every moment,” Rees said. “And to make the best of everything. Just to finish what I’ve started. I’ve been playing for all of these years and I just want to go out with a bang.”

Stanclift said the Wildcats will miss Rees.

“We are going to miss Briele a ton,” Stanclift said. “She comes from a great family. She’s making a decision for her life to go and accomplish her dream as a nurse. We couldn’t be more proud of her for chasing that dream.”

Baker opens play at 11 a.m. Monday in Springfield, Missouri, against the Midland Warriors at Killian Sports Complex, also the site of the Softball World Series 10 days later.