Over the span of two seasons in 1984 and 1985, the California State University, Northridge softball team won 77 percent of its games. Opponents didn’t score on the Matadors 58 percent of the time. In total, it was 85 times that a CSUN opponent didn’t score a run — including a still-standing National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II record 45 shutouts in 1985. There were 14 times when teams didn’t even manage to get one hit. The Matadors won NCAA Division II championships both seasons.
In that two-year period, CSUN softball beat Cal Poly Pomona, Utah State, Nebraska, Cal State Fullerton and UCLA — five teams that played in the NCAA Division I College World Series. UCLA was the Division I champion in ’84 and ’85.
It’s undeniable: This group of players made up two of the greatest athletic teams in CSUN’s history. And now, they will take their rightful place in the Matador Hall of Fame as one unit, on July 24 as part of the 2016 induction class.
This group will be the fourth unit to enter the Matador Hall — the 1967 Matador football team, 1970 baseball team and 1983 softball team (which also won the Division II title) preceded these honorees.
“The biggest reason for the success [of the teams] is because we really clicked as a unit, and we really wanted to play well for each other,” said Kathy “Kat” Slaten-Ayala ’86 (Recreation, Physical Education), one of the most dominant pitchers in NCAA Division II history and a Matador Hall of Famer as an individual player.
Then known as Kathy Slaten, she set Division II records for single-season strikeouts and shutouts in 1984, and then broke those records in 1985. She still owns the Division II strikeouts record of 533 from ’85.
“Oh, she was incredible,” said former CSUN shortstop Kathy Toerner ’85 (Sociology). “Very few teams really had anybody who could hit her, and most of the teams that could were Division I teams. She was very dominant. … We had our games where none of us got any action [in the field]. She mowed them down, but there were other games where you knew you had to pay attention.”
As good as Slaten was, she also needed help.
“My teammates were tough,” she said. “I realized early that in order to be successful, I was going to have to have my teammates score the runs. It was more of a team unit.”
There were seven All-American selections from those two teams — Michey McAnany ’88 (Recreation) (twice), Slaten (twice), Matador Hall of Famer Barbara Jordan ’98 (Kinesiology/Physical Education), Toerner and Stacy Lim ’85.
Beyond their play on the field, there were a lot of intangibles that everyone brought to the table, Slaten and Toerner agreed.
“This team was extremely confident and not to be denied,” Toerner said. “We collectively got along. There was pretty much no dissension among this team at all. … We were all there for the same reason — that’s to win.”
That confidence had carried over from the success of the ’83 team. But it was also instilled by head coach Gary Torgeson ’65, M.A. ’69 (Physical Education), who took over the program in 1982 and immediately helped build it into a national powerhouse.
Torgeson, CSUN’s head football coach from 1973-76, didn’t have much softball experience prior to taking over the program. He said his experience coaching the sport was teaching his daughter the game and coaching her as a youth. But his education helped him transfer his coaching skills from sport to sport.
“Getting an education at Northridge in the physical education department, we were taught you can coach and teach any sport,” Torgeson said. “That’s how we were brought up.”
“I tell you what: He definitely got us in shape,” Toerner recalled. “We had a regimen of workouts and running and lifting weights and things we did in the offseason. Though we really didn’t like it or understand it at the time, it played a role in allowing us to play three games in a day. [And] he really did his homework. He really went to a lot of other schools that put on clinics and did his homework in teaching us the correct way to do things. We were definitely fundamentally sound.”
Torgeson spreads the credit around. He said if it weren’t for the support of CSUN’s athletic administration at the time and its commitment to elevating women’s sports, Matadors softball wouldn’t have been equipped to be successful.
“[Athletic directors] Bob Hiegert and Judy Brame were committed to women’s sports,” Torgeson said. “They tried to get the teams at Northridge a fair shake so [we] could recruit. … We had a good program because we had great athletic directors.”
Torgeson also mentioned that he couldn’t have been a successful coach without a good assistant. Debbie Ching was his right hand, and she was able to connect with the players in a way he couldn’t and unify the team, he said.
Unity, confidence, pitching, coaching, defense and hitting — it was the formula that produced championships. One more Division II crown came in 1987. In 1991, CSUN softball became an NCAA Division I program and in 1994, finished as the Women’s College World Series runner-up.
More than 30 years after the 1984 and 1985 championship teams helped build a reputation for CSUN softball, the program is strong. The 2015 and 2016 teams combined to win 75 games — the most in a two-year span for the program since 1996-97.
Torgeson said he has heard there’s a motto that gets used in the program today: “Together we’re better.”
It’s the same motto the 1984 and 1985 teams used.