While the Brownwood Lady Lions are preparing to embark on McCombs Field on the University of Texas campus for the program’s second appearance in the UIL Class 4A state softball tournament, members of Brownwood’s first team to compete at state have spent the past few weeks reminiscing about their unexpected run to Austin.

Twenty years ago, in just the third year of the program’s existence, the 1996 Lady Lions did the unimaginable by making the softball program’s initial appearance at a state tournament.

“It was unbelievable,” said Hilary Stewardson Stegemoller, a member of the 1996 squad who now works for Congressman Mike Conaway in the Brownwood district office. “It was nothing we really dreamed about because there was no one ahead of us doing it. It was uncharted territory and it felt really special.”

As for the 2016 Lady Lions’ postseason run, Stegemoller added, “It’s drumming up good, nostalgic feelings for what it was like when the town got behind us. It’s really cool to see that happen again. I’m super excited for them and I hope they can surpass where we stopped.”

The 1996 season ended in the state semifinals with a 10-0 loss to Brenham. The 2016 Lady Lions (25-8-1) will face La Grange (38-2) at 9 a.m. Thursday in state semifinal action.

Kati Streckert Burke, Director of Finance for Brownwood ISD, was also on the 1996 state team.

“I’m ecstatic, it’s so exciting,” Burke said of the Lady Lions’ long-awaited return to Austin.

As for her state memories, Burke said, “It was just an awesome experience. We were on a charter bus, which didn’t happen very often for the girls, and had a police escort all the way through town. We went by all the campuses and the kids were outside and they all had signs. The parents were lined up on the highways. It was just unbelievable to see.”

The rest of the 1996 Lady Lions roster included Jill Streckert — Burke’s sister — along with Tamika Organ, Amy Anderson, Natasha Dibrell, Karen Kelly, Monique Sommer, Heather Smith, Heather Dibrell, Paige Smith, Misty Todd, Eimer McGonagle, Courtney Asebedo and Jessica Cavett.

The Lady Lions softball program was born in 1994, and its arrival didn’t come easy.

“My mom helped us, along with some other parents, get signatures to get Brownwood ISD to start a softball team,” said Burke, who made the first roster in 1994 as a freshman.

Stegemoller added, “We started our own team and we had to raise our own money for the field.”

Kirk Woolery, Brownwood’s band director at the time, volunteered to coach the Lady Lions, and three seasons later, an improbable accomplishment became reality.

In the program’s infancy many of the players expected Brownwood to become a perennial postseason contender. And while the Lady Lions haven’t made it back to Austin until this season, Brownwood is in the midst of a string of 12 consecutive postseason appearances.

“So many girls played summer ball, and we’d all played together for so long,” Burke said. “That third year we already had a JV team and we felt like softball would be big.”

As for a possible reunion in Austin, not all the members of the first state tournament team will be on hand, but there will be a contingent on site rooting for a Lady Lions’ state championship.

“We’ve all talked about it and some of us will be there,” Stegemoller said.

The fondest memories for the ‘96 team are not so much what happened on the field, but the bond that was built off it.

“It’s more about the camaraderie we experienced on road trips,” Stegemoller said. “It’s never been about that time someone got a hit, or a double play or anything like that. We get to giggling about all the camaraderie and affection that happens within a team when you have that type of chemistry.”

And regardless of the outcome Thursday — or in the state championship game at 10 a.m. Saturday, should the Lady Lions advance — the journey will be what the players remember most, according to those who have lived it themselves.

“This is going to be a story they tell for their lifetime,” Burke said. “It’s something to be so proud of, and it’s brought great memories for all the girls on that team. We’ve been Facebooking each other, sharing pictures and going through all the papers from back then, the pictures and stories. It’s just been awesome.”