Lookout Mountain skies over the horizon of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and for the softball players of Wilmington University, it is a symbol of finally getting to the biggest stage in Division II Softball.
Wilmington University plays its opening game of the double-elimination Division II Softball National Championship Thursday afternoon against Grand Valley State (Michigan) at 1:30 p.m.
The Wildcats were tantalizingly close to making the championship round in 2022, but after taking the first game of the super regional against Adelphi (New York), they dropped two straight games to leave them on the outside.
Last week they returned to Garden City, and again found themselves in a Game 3 situation on Friday after splitting the opening two games, but this time, the outcome was different.
Their offense would come in the fourth inning, as Tristyn Stewart, Smyrna's Sara Miller, and Haley Downin each collected an RBI single to give the Wildcats a 3-0 lead.
Adelphi would get a run back in the 6th inning in the 7-inning contest, but in the final inning, with the tying run at the plate, centerfielder Taylor Gillis, who once leaped over a wall in a DIAA State Tournament game for the Charter School of Wilmington, this time turned a double play by catching the ball and throwing out the runner off of first base, and then third baseman Miller collected the final groundout to start the celebration.
"A lot of us got emotional because it's been a long time coming for WilmU. There's been some growing periods, and in these last two years we're really grown as a team and were able to get it done," Miller told WDEL this week.
Eight former Delaware high school players are on the squad, with four playing in that clinching game last week, and a fifth acting as the team's No. 2 pitcher in the rotation.
Miller said familiarity brings comfort.
"We're so comfortable with one another. We played travel ball together, and high school ball together, and our families are our family. All the girls are close-knit, and that helps us as a team."
Not everyone took a linear path to WilmU, as Smyrna's Lexi Moore and DMA's Delani Sheehan both were at the University of Delaware, Lake Forest's Jess Reed started her college career at Towson, while Gillis made stops at Monmouth and Delaware before becoming a Wildcat.
Sheehan, who was 5-3 with the Blue Hens in 2021, said the move to Wilmington and Division II has been the right fit.
"It's way more competitive than I ever thought, and I'm honestly enjoying it so much. It's a point where it's very competitive, but still a lot of fun."
It's been fun for a trio of Delawareans as Miller, Moore, and Gillis were all named Third Team D2 All-Americans by at least one publication.
Miller is 10th in Division II with a school-record 64 RBI, hitting .365 on the season.
Moore, the Central Athletic Collegiate Conference Player of the Year, and East Region Player of the Year, is hitting .446, and is 6th in the country in total hits.
Gillis, the team's leadoff hitter, is batting .411 with four home runs, and is 29th in Division II with 74 hits.
Mike Shehorn is in his 10th season guiding Wilmington University, commuting from Magnolia in southern Kent County to coach and also serve as Facilities Manager for the school, and said getting Delaware players to buy into his program has gotten them from a Tournament participant to a Tournament finalist.
"People like Sara, Lexi, and Delaney choosing to come to this school, they're elite players. They're not just here, they were elite in high school. When they chose to come to us, they just elevated our level."
Wilmington will be one of the 4 teams playing in Chattanooga this week making their debut at the Division II Softball Championship's final bracket, and Moore said despite their 44-14 record, there is still room to grow.
"I always say to the team 'One day we'll play our best.' We still haven't yet to play our best this season with the offense doing what our offense does and our defense doing what our defense does."
Shehorn said a key for the team will be trying to forget they're just a series of victories away from a National Championship.
"My job as a coach is to prepare them and get them ready to enjoy the opportunity and play as loose and freely as they can."
Moore said getting to play with so many of her teammates and rivals in youth softball has added to the experience, and hopes this squad is proving to be role models for Delaware's next generation.
"The little girls that looked up to us during those high school games can now look up to us at the next level and know who we are, and how far we've come together. That includes the parents who watched us."
Wilmington University is the No. 4 seed, and will take on No. 5 Grand Valley State at 1:30 p.m. in a game you can watch on the NCAA's website.
They are paired in a four-team bracket with No. 1 UT-Tyler (Texas) and No. 8 Cal State San Marcos.
The championship series begins on May 30, and if Wilmington University has their way, their opponents will need to be on the lookout for them, in the shadow of Lookout Mountain.