Detroit — A year ago right around now, John Conway was all set to pull the plug, submit his official retirement paperwork and move on to the next stage of his life. He had all but made his decision, following perhaps the toughest season of his professional career.
Last season, Detroit Mercy softball finished 14-30, including losing six of its last seven games, and didn't even qualify for the Horizon League tournament. It was an epic meltdown highlighted by a whole bunch of key injuries.
So, yeah, that was plenty, or so Conway thought.
"It was something my wife and I decided, really, and she talked me into staying another year," Conway said. "She said to me, 'One more year, or you're gonna regret it.' And I'm glad she did. She's pretty smart."
Led by some of the best pitching in the nation, Conway and the Titans stormed back from the loser's side of the bracket of the Horizon League tournament and swept host and top-seeded Illinois-Chicago in a two-game championship Saturday to earn the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament.
It's Detroit Mercy's first Horizon League championship since 1992.
Detroit Mercy (31-26) now joins Big Ten champion Michigan in the NCAA tournament. Detroit Mercy learned Sunday night it will head to the Northwestern regional, and not to Ann Arbor as expected, and will open against the host team (43-10) on Friday. Louisville (33-21) and Southern Illinois (33-13) also are in the Northwestern regional.
All this after Conway nearly hung it up. About two weeks after last season, he took a cruise with wife Kathy and a dozen or so other friends. The travels took them throughout Austria, and elsewhere.
"One of the guys I go with is a football coach, and he's like, 'Yeah, it sounds like it's time to go,'" Conway said. "My wife was like, 'No, you really need to give it another year.'"
Never did Conway dream this would be the result of his decision.
After all, it's not as if Detroit Mercy came out of the gate like gangbusters this season. At one point, the Titans were 8-16. They had an early six-game losing streak.
It would've been easy for Conway and his players, especially the upperclassmen, to simply think, "Well, here we go again."
Except they didn't. They stayed remarkably positive. They continued playing good defense. And they continued pitching their tails off.
And it all culminated in one magical weekend in Chicago — and even that one didn't get off to a fantastic start. After opening with a 6-3 victory over Oakland on Thursday, UIC — which swept Detroit Mercy in a three-game series during the regular season — poured it on with an 8-0 shellacking Friday.
That put Detroit Mercy's margin for error at zero, and forced Conway to make a tough decision. He had the Horizon League's pitcher of the year in senior Ashley Mauser, of Utica. But he decided to the turn the ball over to Liz Murphy, the junior from British Columbia — and she proved to beat the hot hand.
Murphy shut down Northern Kentucky later Friday, to set up a shot at the title Saturday. Then, Murphy tossed a three-hit shutout in a 2-0 win to force one more game.
Then, another good thing happened. The rains came, forcing a four-hour delay between games rather than having to play back-to-back. That was huge for Murphy.
"Murphy dominated them and I decided to throw her again, until she ran out of gas," Conway said. "She was able to get treatment on her arm, rest, eat a little bit.
"And five hours later, she was ready."
She sure was. For her second act, Murphy tossed a five-hitter (and also worked around five walks) as the Titans got an RBI double from senior shortstop Courtney Gilbert and made sure that hold up for a 1-0 championship victory.
UIC coach Lynn Curylo told Conway it was the best pitching she saw all year.
Mauser, the league's pitcher of the year, was 18-10 with a 2.17 ERA in starting 32 games for Detroit Mercy. She struck out 184 in 177.2 innings. Murphy could've just as easily earned the league's top honor. She was 11-13 with a 2.16 ERA in 37 games, including 22 starts, with 137 strikeouts in 158.2 innings.
Those were the only two pitchers to make first-team All-Horizon League.
Also earning first-team honors were Detroit Mercy's Gilbert (.312), the team's shortstop from Ontario, and Jordan Manno (.346 ), the catcher from New Mexico who started nearly every game this year for the Titans and caught 23 of 37 would-be base-stealers.
"She calls pitches. That's very rare to let a catcher call them because of all the scouting reports," Conway said. "But she's really smart, she knows the pitchers very well."
It's about that time of year again, when Conway is just about ready to call it quits.
And this time, there's no going back — even if, say, his team wins the Women's College World Series, which, of course, is the longest of long shots. The Conways are moving to Hilton Head, S.C., where Kathy will semi-retire from her job in the medical-malpractice field, and where John will explore his love for the water.
John Conway, a former member of the United States Coast Guard, recently got his boat captain's license, and plans to become a deliveryman captain — moving boats long distances, from say New York to Florida, when the owners would rather not. He's already secured a volunteer crew of 20. He also has plans to maybe join the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Conway, Detroit Mercy's coach since 2015, also could see himself staying in the game, maybe as a volunteer assistant coach somewhere.
But first thing's first. Retirement can wait a few more days. There's still, after all and to his surprise, more softball to be played.
"Quite honestly, no," Conway said when asked if he saw this season's success coming. "It's gravy, because nobody expected this. We were predicted to come in seventh. Nobody expected this out of us.
"But good pitching and good defense, and anything can happen."
Not to mention, a little darn good advice from the wife.
All games at Drysdale Field, Evanston, Ill.
Format: Double elimination
Game 1: No. 2 Louisville vs. No. 3 Southern Illinois 1 p.m.
Game 2: No. 1 Northwestern vs. No. 4 Detroit Mercy, 3:30 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 2 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 4:30 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 2 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 4:30 p.m.