CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Beth Keylon-Randolph acted a little out of character this time around.
The Chattanooga State softball coach has taken eight teams to the NJCAA World Series several in the past decade, but something just felt different about the bunch she brought with her this year.
"I set aside a brand new game ball for signatures before we ever started playing in Utah," Randolph said. "I just had a feeling that this was the year."
The move proved prophetic.
The top-seeded Lady Tigers capped off a record-setting 62-4 season by winning three straight elimination games Saturday, rallying back from the loser's bracket to claim their first-ever national championship.
"It's one of the greatest feelings I'll ever have. You don't get many chances to win a national championship," said Ashley Czechner, who was named the tournament's most outstanding pitcher. "I'm trying to cherish every moment with my teammates."
The team returned to campus Tuesday afternoon to a hero's welcome. They were honored by school and local officials, including Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, all while displaying their prized trophy for all to see.
"It's a big trophy, and it just represents so much to us," said sophomore infielder MeQuilla Franklin. "It represents our fight, our determination, and it's just a symbol of our team as a whole."
The journey didn't come without a little drama.
Chatt State dropped into the loser's bracket Friday night after a loss to second-seeded Salt Lake Community College in the winner's bracket final, but never wavered.
"We all woke up Saturday morning confident we were going to win it all," said outfielder Marina Wilkerson. "I kept asking people if they were nervous, but none of us were."
The Lady Tigers ousted Wallace State to earn a rematch with Salt Lake, then jumped on SLCC early for three runs in the first inning en route to a 8-7 win.
Czechner, an LSU-signee who set an NJCAA single-season record with 374 strikeouts, went into lock-down mode in tossing a four-hitter in the deciding second game to lead Chatt State to a 4-1 win.
"What a moment it was," Keylon-Randolph said. "It's something we've worked for the last eleven years. We've expected to do it every year, but this is the first time we've been able to do it."
It was the culmination of an eleven-year quest for Keylon-Randolph, who had won 591 previous games at Chattanooga State, but never the one that mattered the most.
"Coach Randolph is so great. She's gone to Utah for the past decade, but she's never been able to bring back a championship," Czechner said. "We did it for her, for the whole school and just for all of Chattanooga."
The title marks the first national collegiate team championship for a local team since the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team won the Division II national title in 1977.
"It's huge. It's totally for the community because it's something that's bigger than us," Keylon-Randolph said. "These girls are a part of history. They're the first team here to ever win a national championship. They certainly won't be the last, but I told them right now it's their moment."