UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — Michelle Venturella has a daily reminder of one of the low points of her legendary softball career.
The former Indiana University standout is the sixth-year head coach of University of Illinois at Chicago, which this year is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its only trip in program history to the Women's College World Series.
"I think I got over it a long time ago, but I do talk about that [it's] the one part of my career that's missing," said Venturella, a catcher who won two state titles at Thornwood, a Big Ten crown at IU and a gold medal with Team USA at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The loss to UIC as an Indiana player two decades ago is "in the back of my mind, but life is about more than one game," she said.
UIC's trip to Oklahoma City remains the only time in the program's 39-year history it reached the Elite Eight of softball.
UIC begins its 2014 season Friday with a tournament in Rosemont that includes Illinois, whose head coach and associate coach, Terri Sullivan and Donna DiBiase, were an assistant coach and third baseman, respectively, on the 1994 Flames roster.
The school is planning to honor the 1994 Flames prior to the April 5 home game against Wright State, whose head coach is Lynn Curylo, an outfielder 20 years ago for UIC.
"Obviously, that year was special," Curylo said.
One of Curylo's most vivid memories of the Flames' 7-3 NCAA regional championship victory over the Hoosiers on May 22, 1994. was an announcement from IU's press box.
The Hoosiers had just taken a 3-2 advantage in the fifth inning on a two-run homer by Venturella, and Curylo said the game announcer told the IU-partisan crowd to make sure they bought their Women's College World Series tickets well in advance because there were limited quantities available.
Minutes later, UIC right fielder Sue North smashed a two-run shot to give the Flames a lead they would not relinquish.
"Michelle was catching, and I think I just waited on a change-up, which used to be my worst pitch to hit," said North, now Sue Asher, who lives in suburban Shorewood and is an online teacher for Florida Virtual School.
Asher said the Flames had immense confidence that season, which started with head coach Mike McGovern, a Lane Tech High School graduate. Now 72, he plans to volunteer coach at Evanston Township High School this spring.
To begin the '94 season, McGovern challenged each of the Flames to finish a series of standing jumps on progressively taller boxes, the last of which was 3 feet tall. McGovern said the plyometric exercises were designed to develop explosive power and inspire faith in each player.
"I told them if they could all do it, we would go to the College World Series," said McGovern, of Lincolnwood.
DiBiase, a former head coach at Loyola University Chicago, was the last player to complete the task.
"I was one of the captains. There was no way I wasn't going to do it because that particular team had a special bond," said DiBiase, who was a fifth-year senior after redshirting the previous year because of reconstructive shoulder surgery. "It was a special time in my life, and I felt very fortunate to be a part of that program."
The Flames would lose to Arizona and UCLA by a combined score of 17-0 in the double-elimination WCWS, ending their year 56-19-1. But besides the historical impact of the season, beating the Hoosiers had a major financial impact. McGovern said after the regional triumph, a representative from the sporting goods company Easton offered to sponsor the Flames with a plethora of equipment, including bats, gloves, shoes and personalized bags.
"Even eye-black, and anything you could think related to softball," said McGovern, who noted the deal with Easton lasted until he stepped down at UIC in 2001. "We had a very slim budget, and that sponsorship was significant."
McGovern said the 1994 Flames jelled because of senior leadership abd their quirky campus surroundings. He said a ritual prior to placing the tarp on the field was making sure there were no rats inside the tubing.
"Maxwell Street was quite different than we know it today, but we were still able to attract numerous talented players from all over," he said.
Venturella wasn't one of them. She was recruited by UIC, but she chose IU in part because she had family who had attended there, but also because she noticed warehouses with broken glass around the Near West Side school back then.
"If I would have chosen UIC, I would have had a chance to play in the College World Series," Venturella said.
The Flames' head coach hopes to use the 1994 squad's success as an example for her club this year. Even if that loss still is a sore point.
"Wouldn't it be nice to go back to the College World Series and have another story to write about?" she asked.