When UNLV announced in March of 2000 that it had received a $3 million gift to be put toward the construction of a new softball stadium, there was no happier person than Shan McDonald.
Then in her 16th year as the softball program’s head coach, McDonald had seen the Rebels through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and she had seen most of them from a groomed field and makeshift stadium wedged between the campus’ cafeteria and residence hall.
Since 1987, McDonald had been sculpting the Rebels softball program. Countless hours were spent building a foundation for a team that would spend more than a mere 15 minutes in the national limelight. McDonald developed a squad that would win the school its first softball conference title, its first NCAA regional title and its first Women’s College World Series appearance.
Now in her 17th year, the game and the goal are the same. Only the scenery is different. The new stadium has already added to McDonald’s coaching legacy, which includes four Big West Players of the Year, 58 All-Big West honorees, 36 All-West Region selections and 15 All-Americans.
McDonald came to UNLV in 1987 from Texas A&M, where she both played and coached softball for the perennial power and legendary coach Bob Brock. The 1983 Texas A&M Player of the Year led the Aggies to back-to-back national titles – a AIAW title in 1982 and an NCAA crown in ’83.
A four-year starter and scholar athlete, McDonald compiled an impressive 116-19 record in the circle and kept the Aggies among the nation’s elite. She broke (and still holds) school records for But her softball career came to a close when the 1983 Southwest Conference Scholar Athlete received her bachelor’s degree in biology and physical education. Brock retained her as a student assistant coach in her fifth year while she finished her education and trained her successors in the art of pitching at the highest competitive level.
Twice under McDonald’s guidance did the Aggies advance all the way to the NCAA title game. The second of those appearances, in 1986, marked the last game that the ace would spend with her alma mater. She ended a three-year stint as an assistant coach to pursue a head coaching opportunity with a two-year-old UNLV program competing in perhaps the toughest league in the land.
So, at 27, the youthful mentor arrived at her first head coaching job. The success that she had only known as a player and assistant coach didn’t come quickly or easily as the Rebels won only 15 games her first year. Only 18 came in the next. But McDonald was upgrading her talent level and teaching the program what it took to become a contender.
By her third year, that upgraded talent carried the club over the .500 mark. A stunning left-handed freshman that McDonald had uncovered in southern California won more than half of the squad’s 32 victories and broke school records for wins, ERA, strikeouts and shutouts. Lori Harrigan was an All-Big West choice as a freshman.
The next season, McDonald signed the class that put the Rebels over the top. Kim Smith, a right-handed pitcher from Vancouver, Wash., was the perfect complement to Harrigan. Chris Parris, a prized shortstop from McDonald’s own hometown of Scarborough, Ontario, transferred from junior college and added a big bat to the lineup. And Tricia Reimche, a speedy slap hitter from Lodi, Calif., carried a sure glove at second base.
UNLV rolled to a 41-27 overall record, a fourth-place finish in the Big West Conference, and most notably an NCAA Regional appearance. Within four years, McDonald had showed UNLV the gateway to the postseason.
The Rebels walked through it rather mightily, bowling over San Jose State and California in the Regional to earn a berth at the College World Series in Oklahoma City. There, they met Big West runner-up Long Beach State, who dealt the Rebels a loss for the fifth time that season. UNLV rallied for a 5-2 victory over Kent State before bowing out of the double-elimination tourney with a 4-1 loss to Florida State.
Regardless, McDonald had led UNLV to the same success she had known as a player and established the program among the class of the country. The 1990 season was the first of seven straight trips to the postseason. The Rebels leapt to second in the league in 1991 and returned to the College World Series. McDonald was chosen the Speedline/NSCA West Region Coach of the Year.
By the mid-90s, McDonald’s teams were some of the most feared in the country. Some of the names on the roster had changed, but the attitude and desire were still there. Big West titles were won in 1994 and 95 as was a second West Region Coach of the Year honor. A third CWS berth came after a two-run Sara Mallett homer propelled UNLV past Oklahoma in the regional final.
The Rebs ripped through the consolation bracket at the CWS, winning two games to set up a showdown with Arizona for the right to play in the title game. Arizona upended the Rebels’ championship run before succumbing to UCLA for the crown.
Unknown at the time, UNLV’s third-place showing at the ’95 series was the peak of the success. In order to comply with Title IX, more and more universities were adding softball programs, and with more choices, recruits were starting to be lured away by programs with both tradition and flashy facilities.
A string of eight straight winning seasons and seven consecutive postseason berths was snapped in 1997 when McDonald’s club finished 26-28, two games under .500. UNLV had moved into the Western Athletic Conference and slipped from a runner-up league finish to fifth.
While continually fielding a competitive team that also performed in the classroom, McDonald’s teams rolled to mediocre sixth-place finishes four years in a row, a streak that was quickly snapped once the Rebels’ new stadium was erected.
In the first year of Eller Media Stadium, the Rebels soared to an impressive 17-12 home record and a third-place showing in the final MWC standings. A conference tournament win over Colorado State before humbling setbacks to Utah and BYU closed the Rebels’ best season in six years with a hint of promise.