Nobody expected Wichita State to be in this position when softball season started. Coach Kristi Bredbenner wants the Shockers to enjoy that perspective and play without fear this weekend with a conference title at stake.
The spring started with WSU picked eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference, not unreasonable for a team that went 19-33 in 2013. The Shockers didn’t agree.
“We all knew we were better than that,” catcher Melanie Jaegers said. “It can’t just be about us knowing we were better, we had to go show people we were better.”
WSU did just that by taking control of the MVC race —until last weekend’s series loss at home to Southern Illinois. Two losses knocked the Shockers out of first place, but not out of contention. They play at Illinois State this weekend with a chance to continue to exceed expectations.
“We’ve proved to everyone in the conference that we came ready to play this year,” pitcher Jenni Brooks said.
Two wins at Illinois State gives WSU its first Missouri Valley Conference title. The Shockers (31-20, 18-6 MVC) trail the first-place Redbirds (25-24, 17-4) and can’t finish lower than second. The series begins with a noon doubleheader Saturday and finishes at noon Sunday in Normal, Ill.
The top two seeds earn byes into the semifinals of the MVC Tournament, held May 8-10 at Illinois State. Those teams need only win two games to earn the Valley’s automatic bid to an NCAA regional.
Last weekend, Bredbenner watched normally patient hitters swing early in the count and get themselves out, one of the clues her team didn’t handle the role of favorite as well as hoped.
“It is a new situation for them,” Bredbenner said. “The girls started to do the math and knew that we needed to win five games to win the conference. You kind of press a little bit. You’ve got to play like you’ve been playing all year.”
WSU wants to get back to that style this weekend. Illinois State, winners of 12 MVC titles, is used to playing important games in May.
“No longer is the target really on our back,” Bredbenner said. “We can be that spoiler team that we really have been all year.”
Illinois State struggled through a non-conference schedule that included 11 games against teams currently in the top 16 of the NCAA power rankings (RPI). In MVC play, the Redbirds rank first with a 2.46 ERA, second in fielding percentage (.976) and second in hitting (.320) with an MVC-leading 28 home runs. WSU leads the conference (in conference games) with a .330 batting average and a .983 fielding percentage. Its ERA of 3.35 ranks third.
“They’re going to put the ball in play and make things happen,” Jaegers said. “If you put the ball in play, routine plays, they’re going to make them. They beat teams with their defense a lot of times.”
Illinois State sophomore pitcher Regan Romshek leads the Valley with a 2.28 ERA in 19 conference games. She walked 24 batters and struck out 63 in 98 1/3 innings.
“She’s definitely the type of pitcher that likes to control the tempo,” Bredbenner said. “She’s got a great riseball and throws a change-up for a great strike.”