For Patti Gerckens, the journey began 19 years ago. She was a young coach from New Jersey who inherited a program that had seen four head coaches in the previous six seasons. She had one part-time assistant. The team went 6-28 in her first season.
Since then Gerckens has guided UC San Diego through a move to Division II from Division III, become the program's all-time winningest coach and overseen the construction of a new state-of-the art softball facility on campus.
In a career full of highlights, nothing can come close to what transpired on Monday.
Senior third baseman Sarah Woofter went 3-for-3 with three runs scored and junior All-American Camille Gaito tossed another brilliant game in the circle as the 16th-ranked Tritons blew past No. 1 Alabama-Huntsville, 10-3, in the NCAA Division II Softball Championship game on Monday afternoon at the James Moyer Sports Complex in Salem.
UCSD (45-14) scored 10 runs in the game's first three innings, while Gaito held the potent UAH lineup down until the final frame to lift the Tritons to their fourth win in five days during the NCAA Finals. The victory marks the program's first national title and the 30th overall for UC San Diego as an institution.
Alabama-Huntsville, which also won its first three games in Salem to earn a trip to Monday's championship, concludes the season with an overall record of 48-6-1.
"I haven't really had a chance to think about much other than the excitement of winning a national championship," Gerckens said. "This is so awesome and I'm just so proud of my girls and the team and how everybody came together."
While Gaito earned her ninth straight victory in the NCAA Tournament, the Triton offense was the story on Monday, as UCSD erupted for 10 runs against a squad that had allowed a total of just four in its previous three games. Woofter got on base a total of four times in the game, while senior second baseman Jennifer De Fazio went 2-for-3 with a run scored and a RBI and junior designated player Tess Granath was 2-for-2 with a pair of runs.
"All year we've set goals for ourselves," Woofter said. "Our big goal was to get here to nationals and the championship series and to win it and its unbelievable that all that hard work was worth it.
"As seniors, we wanted to leave a legacy and we wanted to start a winning tradition and I feel we definitely instilled that into the young members on our team. The teams to come are going to be just as good, if not better."
UCSD outhit UAH 12-9 in the game, with the Chargers stranding 11 runners on base. Alabama-Huntsville entered Monday's matchup averaging over seven runs per game.
The rout was on early as the Tritons jumped all over Charger starter Whitney Toler in the bottom of the first inning and scored five runs in the frame. Kris Lesovsky drew a leadoff walk to start things off and advanced to second when Woofter was hit by a pitch. With De Fazio at the plate, Lesovsky stole third and then came home when catcher Krystal Johnson's throw got by third baseman Abby McKay and sailed into left field.
Granath added a two-out RBI single to left to drive home Woofter two batters later and Esther Strom followed with a screaming grounder down the right field line to score two more. The next batter was Katrin Gabriel, who roped a RBI single to left center to make it 5-0 in favor of the Tritons.
UCSD had three hits in the inning, while taking advantage of two walks from Toler and a UAH error.
The Tritons came right back with four more runs in the second inning, stringing together six consecutive singles with two outs. Woofter got the train going with a bloop single to left and De Fazio and Charly Swanberg followed with singles of their own to plate the first run of the stanza. Granath, Strom and Gabriel would follow suit with hits of their own to drive in three more runs and give UCSD a commanding 9-0 cushion.
All four of the Tritons' runs were unearned as the Chargers' third baseman dropped a pop up off the bat of De Fazio that would have ended the inning.
UCSD still wasn't done, as De Fazio's RBI single in the last of the third made it 10-0.
"This is so amazing and it hasn't even sunk in yet that we won [a national championship]," De Fazion said. "But we worked hard for four years and to see it end like this, it couldn't end any better way."
Staked to a massive lead, Gaito settled in and had a shutout going until Alabama-Huntsville finally got on the board in the seventh. Kelli Long scored on a RBI fielder's choice from Mary Kelly and Krystal Johnson came home on a wild pitch. Emily Roach added a rum scoring double with two outs, but it was too little, too late as Gaito got pinch hitter Sam Deep to foul out to third base for the final out.
Gaito (35-4) collected her fourth consecutive win in Salem, scattering nine hits in another commanding performance. She fanned seven batters in the game, bringing her strikeout total to 30 in UCSD's four games at the final.
The junior right-hander was named the MVP of finals after allowing just six run runs in 28 innings pitched during the finals for an ERA of 1.50.
Toler (21-3) lasted just an inning and two thirds for UAH, allowing nine runs, five earned, on nine hits with two strikeouts and two walks. She retired just five of the 17 batters she faced, losing for just the third time in 28 starts this season. Whitney Gilbert tossed an inning of relief, allowing a run on two hits, while Alex Lexis held the Tritons to just one hit over the final three and a third.
The Chargers had allowed 10 runs just one other time this season.
Long finished 2-for-3 with a walk and run scored for UAH offensively, while Stephanie Needham also had two hits.
UCSD wraps up the season with a program record 45 wins, while Gaito became the all-time career leader in pitching victories with her four wins in Salem. The Tritons are the first squad to win an NCAA Championship for UC San Diego since the women's soccer team claimed the title in 2001.
"I'm just so proud to be a part of UCSD," Gerckens concluded. "We've talked about this before. We have such great student-athletes, great coaches, great administrators. I'm just so proud to be part of this university and to be part of that group."