Lobo Classics: 1981 Softball Reaches AIAW World Series
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Over the last decade or so, there is perhaps no women’s sport in collegiate athletics that has grown more in relevance and popularity on a national stage than softball. In recent years that exponential growth has come thanks to increased television coverage by national networks such as ESPN and regional networks that are controlled by the prominent Power 5 conferences. Specifically, with the backing of the “Worldwide Leader In Sports,” the sport of college softball now receives nearly two full weeks of wall-to-wall postseason coverage on TV each year; culminating in the Women’s College World Series in early June.
That kind of commitment by television networks has obviously been pivotal to the growth of the game, and the sport is enjoying the benefits of it as many of today’s major Division I college softball programs, coaches and players alike, are becoming household names. While the current state of college softball is remarkable, it was not that long ago that this was not the case. Like numerous other women’s collegiate sports, softball had some relatively humble beginnings that featured countless pioneers that helped pave the road to its current state.
One of those humble beginnings took shape in the form of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Established in 1971, the AIAW, for all intents and purposes, served as the national governing body for women’s collegiate athletics and became the avenue in which women’s sports programs across the country would have the opportunity to compete for national championship in their respective sports. A year after the formation of the AIAW, women’s collegiate sports received another significant boost with the passing of Title IX. While not expressively addressing collegiate athletics, Title IX has made a remarkable impact on women’s collegiate athletics and has been pointed to as a major positive contributing factor to the current state of women’s collegiate athletics.
While the AIAW laid the groundwork for women’s collegiate athletics on a national level, the pioneering organization eventually dissolved in 1983, giving way to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which began to sponsor women’s sports and the national championship the academic year prior in 1981-82.
The year prior to the NCAA beginning to take a foothold in women’s collegiate athletics is where the focus of the latest edition of Lobo Classics takes us as we highlight the 1981 Lobo softball team and their run to the second-to-last AIAW College Softball World Series.
Established as a program in 1978 by legendary head coach Susan Craig, the softball program at the University of New Mexico had already achieved so much in a short amount of time leading into the 1981 season.
Just a year earlier, the program had reached the AIAW College Softball World Series for the first time by battling through the loser’s bracket of that year’s Intermountain Regional Tournament. After dropping their opening game of the tournament, the Lobos went on to win five games in two days including beating eventual National Champion, Utah State twice on the final day to capture the championship and earn the automatic bid.
The Lobos’ stay at their initial AIAW College Softball World Series was short-lived, however, as the team went 0-2 losing to Cal Poly-Pomona and Western Michigan. Despite the early elimination, the achievement of that 1980 team was remarkable considering the program was just in its third year of existence.
With the program now entering its fourth year in 1981, that meant that Coach Craig’s program-building initial recruiting class was reaching its senior season. The players of that class that were set to embark on their fourth year in the program were comprised by a trio of New Mexicans in Cindy Cravens of Albuquerque and Tammy Goff and Karen Pace, both from Carlsbad. Joining those three as a senior in 1981 was standout pitcher Tippy Borrego, who joined the program in 1980 as a transfer from Cerritos Community College (Norwalk, Calif.). The senior leadership of those four proved to be vital to the Lobos making a return trip to the AIAW College Softball World Series.
This time, the road back to the national championship tournament was a little less stressful. Entering the Intermountain Regional Tournament in 1981, the Lobos had already tied the program record for wins with 30. In terms of conference play, the Lobos were 9-5 that season and came into the regional tournament third in the standings behind Utah State and Utah, both of whom were 12-2 in league play.
Despite being third heading into the tournament, the Lobos had several factors playing in their favor. The first being the success they had the year prior, and the second being the fact that they would be playing in front of their home crowd as the tournament was being held in Albuquerque. Additionally, the Lobos were heading into the Intermountain Regional Tournament riding a six-game winning streak.
During that six-game winning streak, Borrego was dominant in the circle and did not allow a single run, notching a shutout in each game. The senior hurler’s dominance down the stretch of the regular season gave Coach Craig, a 2018 New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame inductee, all the confidence to have Borrego deliver every pitch in the upcoming tournament. As she was quoted in the Albuquerque Journal heading into the tournament, Coach Craig said, “We’ll be using Tippy every game so we can finish the season as strong as possible.”
That decision proved to be a wise one as Borrego pitched the Lobos to a perfect 4-0 record in the double-elimination tournament, punching the team’s ticket to the AIAW College World Series. Along the way, Borrego and the Lobos beat Idaho State, Utah and New Mexico State twice.
The first encounter with their in-state rivals saw the game go to extra-innings where the Lobos emerged victorious in the eighth beating NMSU 1-0. In that eighth inning sophomore Minnesota native Sue Kragseth, with two on and two outs, singled in junior Arizona native Bobbie Smith for the game-winning run. That victory assured the Lobos a spot in the AIAW College World Series as the top two teams that emerged from the regional tournament would qualify for the championship.
The following day, the Lobos were in position to repeat as regional tournament champions and were set to face NMSU once more as the Roadrunners, as they were called then, staved off elimination by beating Utah earlier that morning.
In the rematch, the Lobos struck first in the third inning as Goff, who went on to be named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, reached first on an error that also allowed Claire Miller to score. An inning later, the Lobo offense plated three more runs to push the Lobo lead to 4-0. In that inning, Cravens doubled home Kragseth for the first run. Later Sheri O’Brien singled home current UNM head softball coach Paula Congleton. The third run of the inning came as Cravens scored on a throwing error.
With Borrego working on authoring yet another shutout, the Roadrunners thwarted that accomplishment with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Despite losing the shutout, Borrego put the finishing touches on the win as the Lobos beat NMSU 4-1. For her efforts in the circle during the three-day tournament, Borrego was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Pitcher.
Appearing now in their second-straight AIAW College Softball World Series, the Lobos were determined to have a better showing feeling a greater sense of belonging on the highest stage. In a preview article in the Carlsbad Current-Argus, Carlsbad native Karen Pace was quoted as saying, “Last year we were really just excited to be at the nationals, and we didn’t realize we could have won…It was like, ‘Wow, we’re here,’ and that’s it. Now most of us have been there and we know. I think we can put it all together.”
The road to a potential National Championship would not be easy of course and the Lobos drew the Oklahoma Sooners as their opening round opponent.
Like the Lobos, the Sooners were return participants in the AIAW College Softball World Series and also suffered an 0-2 tournament in 1980. Heading into that opening game in 1981, Oklahoma had a 37-25 record while the Lobos were 34-19. Earlier that season, the Lobos and Sooners met with Oklahoma beating New Mexico, 8-0. Cited as an atypical game for the Lobos that season, Coach Craig noted in an Albuquerque Journal preview article that Borrego was sick with a cold that game.
Looking for redemption from that earlier game, a healthy Borrego got the ball for the Lobos against the Sooners and the senior right-hander was truly un-hittable. Despite not allowing a hit in the game, Borrego and the Lobos suffered a loss as the Sooners took advantage of three walks and a wild pitch in the sixth inning to account for the game’s only run.
Suddenly thrust into the loser’s bracket, the Lobos were playing for their tournament lives and drew another team in the exact same situation in Illinois State. As the game played on into the late innings, the Lobos and Redbirds were locked in a scoreless pitcher’s duel.
The lone run of the game came late as Congleton reached base and eventually was moved over the third base for a Meg Connors at-bat. During that at-bat, Congleton and Connors looked down to assistant coach Ken Johnson for the sign and Johnson, knowing that just a single run could be enough, rolled the dice and called for a squeeze bunt. Undeterred by the moment or the assignment, Connors, a freshman from Scottsdale, Ariz. successfully laid down the bunt allowing Congleton to score.
That lone run indeed held up for the Lobos as they beat Illinois State 1-0 for the program’s first win at a national championship tournament.
Charged with a longer and increasingly difficult road ahead, the Lobos played another elimination game a day later, this time against Big Eight Champion, Oklahoma State. The game with the Cowgirls, unfortunately spelled the end of the road for the Lobos as Oklahoma State eliminated UNM, 5-2.
Despite the loss to the Cowgirls, the Lobos still had remarkable 1981 season to hang their hats on. The Lobos ended the 1981 season with a record of 35-21 and the 35 victories stood as a program record until Coach Craig’s 1999 team won 42 games. Additionally, in just their fourth year of existence in 1981, the Lobo softball program had won two Intermountain Regional Tournaments and made consecutive trips to the AIAW College Softball World Series.
Indeed, the achievements of the 1981 Lobo softball team have laid the foundation for the program and set the benchmark for success. A benchmark that current head coach Paula Congleton, who was a sophomore on that team, is striving to achieve at her alma mater.
About Lobo Classics
The goal of the “Lobo Classics” series is to highlight some of the greatest moments in the history of UNM Athletics. These types of moments can consist of specific games, individual performances, record-breaking achievements or even entire championship seasons. It is our intention that during this period of uncertainty, we can bring some joy and happiness to our unwaveringly loyal fans that make up Lobo Nation!
As part of this endeavor, Lobo Athletics wants to make this an interactive project and are opening up for suggestions from Lobo fans everywhere. Fans can make suggestions that they would like to see highlighted in “Lobo Classics” by tweeting to @UNMLobos and using the hashtag #LoboClassics. Fans can also submit suggestions through email: firstname.lastname@example.org.