It was truly a packed house that welcomed the champions back to the Chattanooga State campus Tuesday afternoon.
Minutes after the school's softball team arrived by bus from the Atlanta airport, the planned celebration of the Lady Tigers' NJCAA Division I national championship in Utah shifted from their ballfield to the nearby field house.
Starting about 10 minutes early outdoors to get a jump on the weather, Dr. Jim Catanzaro -- the college's president -- opened the ceremony accompanied by a loud clap of thunder. Then Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and State Senator Bo Watson delivered proud congratulations and city representative Greta Hayes read a proclamation from Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield that this is Lady Tigers Softball Week.
Then the gathering moved indoors.
Faculty and staff members, parents, friends of the program and television and newspaper camera people crammed into the conference room with the players and coaches and dignitaries. Not everyone present could fit.
Head coach Beth Keylon-Randolph and some of the players gave accounts of key moments in the tournament, particularly the final day when the top-seeded Lady Tigers won three games, including two against second-seeded Salt Lake for Chattanooga State's first national title in any sport.
Some pointed out the extra motivation of Salt Lake's celebration Friday night after beating the Lady Tigers.
Ashley Czechner, both the outstanding pitcher and most valuable player of the tournament, said she thought she "had lost the tournament" when she gave up a three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning of the first rematch.
But freshman Lacye Walker cracked a tying homer with two outs in the seventh, "and I was crying tears of joy. After that I knew we were going to win the tournament," the LSU recruit said.
Indeed, her teammates added another run and Czechner struck out three batters in the bottom of the seventh and then threw a four-hitter in a 4-1 victory for the title. As her coach said, "When she needed to, Ashley rose to the occasion. And without the great innings Janna Scheff gave us, we don't win the tournament."
And what was Walker thinking before her fourth homer of the tournament?
"'I'm not going to get out. I'm not going to make the last out.' I hate doing that," Walker recalled.
Keylon-Randolph admitted she would have preferred winning Friday and needing just one victory, not three, on Saturday, but she and Walker both said the way the Lady Tigers accomplished their title made it even more memorable.
"It made us closer. It was a lot bigger since we had to beat them twice," Walker said.
"When we lost and Salt Lake celebrated, it renewed our focus," said Keylon-Randolph, who has 602 wins for her 11 Chatt State seasons. "At our team meeting before we went to bed Friday night, the players all looked at me and said, 'Coach, this is not over. We're going to win this.'"
She said this group "is always going to be the first team here that won a national championship. It's not going to be the last, but it is the first, and they'll always have that memory."
Spending Sunday night and all day Monday in Las Vegas, where the team's biggest release was riding the roller coaster at "New York, New York," the Lady Tigers carried their trophy everywhere they went. Then they took a flight that left about 3 a.m. EDT Tuesday, so sleep had been at a premium on the ride home.
Still, the welcome was exciting for them. Smiling broadly, MeQuilla Franklin called it a "media frenzy" and said it was "more than we ever could have imagined."
"It's one of the most touching things I've ever been involved with," athletic director and assistant coach Steve Jaecks said. "This bonded the community with Chattanooga State and the athletic department."
Said Keylon-Randolph: "It's wonderful. It's great for the kids and great for the community. We've worked hard for this, and to see the recognition of all our time and energy come into play is really great."