Caitlyn Hughes looked a bit out of place Sunday afternoon.
Amid the white-and-maroon uniforms of players celebrating a historic victory for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse softball program, Hughes stood on the field in Pella, Iowa in a cap and gown.
“Even though it was my graduation day, there’s no place else I would rather have been,” the Stewartville native and Sport Management major said.
Sunday was graduation day at UW-La Crosse.
It was also the day that Hughes helped pitch the Eagles to the championship of the NCAA Division III Pella, Iowa, Regional, and a trip to this weekend’s Super Regional in St. Paul.
The Eagles (29-18) will face No. 3-ranked University of St. Thomas in a best-of-3 series on Friday and Saturday, with the winner advancing to the Division III national championships, an eight-team tournament held May 23-28 in Tyler, Texas. This weekend’s games mark the first time UW-L has ever played in a Super Regional.
“From the start of the year, I knew this was a special team,” said Hughes, who was the lone UW-L player to graduate this spring; she celebrated by wearing her cap and gown throughout the post-game awards ceremony. “We knew if we stuck together and played the best we can, we could do this.
“(Winning the regional) was pure joy. All of us were jumping up and down and crying. It was an emotional moment.”
After a loss to Lake Forest (Ill.) College on Saturday, UW-L came back through the elimination bracket to beat Lake Forest twice for the championship. Hughes pitched a combined 5 1/3 innings in the two title games, which the Eagles won 5-0 and 10-3.
“It’s the first time (UW-L) has made it this far,” she said, “and it being my senior year, I really couldn’t ask for much more.”
Whether the Eagles advance past this weekend or not — they lost a home doubleheader against St. Thomas in early April by scores of 10-0 and 7-3 — it’s a fitting way for Hughes’ college career to come to a close.
She has poured herself into the program for four years — after spending six seasons on the Stewartville varsity, where her dad, Curt, is the head coach.
“I loved playing for him,” she said. “Softball is something special that we have been able to share together.”
Caitlyn Hughes has played a bigger role for the Eagles in each of her four seasons with the team. She has a career 43-23 record at UW-L, including a team-best 16-4 mark this season. She went 3-0 at the regional last weekend, allowing just four runs on nine hits in four appearances, and she was named to the All-Tournament Team.
“Going into this year — I’ve spent 15 years doing this — I wanted to make it the best season of my life,” she said. “No matter what happens, I just want to have fun and let my team know that I have their back because they always have mine.”
Hughes has split time in the circle almost evenly with sophomore Maddie Muelken from Farmington. Muelken is 9-6 with a team-leading 1.87 ERA. Hughes carries a 2.92 ERA into this weekend’s games and leads the Eagles in wins (16), games started (23), strikeouts (94) and opponents batting average (.252).
Hughes said the competition among the Eagles’ tight-knit pitching staff has made her a better player.
“I always want the ball,” she said, “but it’s a team game, so if I don’t have it, I’m going to support my teammates and help them however I can. And when I do have the ball, I always feel like I have something to prove.”