The Wichita State softball team has a chance to win a conference championship in this weekend's series at South Florida, as the top two teams in the American Athletic Conference square off.
USF (34-19, 12-6 AAC) has a one-game lead over WSU (29-18, 11-7 AAC) in the conference, so the Shockers need to win two of three to share the AAC title or they can win it outright with a sweep. The teams play at 5:30 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday, and noon Sunday.
"We were picked to finish fifth in conference (in preseason AAC poll) and we have a chance to win the championship, so at some point you've got to create that underdog mentality," WSU coach Kristi Bredbenner said. "I think our team plays its best when we're playing loose and we're playing with energy, so I hope that team shows up this weekend."
The two teams have been trending in different directions lately, as USF has lost four of its last seven games and WSU has won five of its last six.
WSU's resurgence has been powered by an offense that leads the American in nearly every hitting category in conference games. The most impressive statistic is that WSU has more than double the home runs (28) than the second-place team (USF has 13).
But that kind of power might not be as effective at USF, which by far has the biggest field in the American with the left- and right-field walls measuring 210 feet and dead-center at 230 feet.
"It's the biggest softball field I can think of, so we're not going to be able to get out of jams by blowing one over the fence," Bredbenner said. "That's not going to happen as often, so we've got to hit to the gaps, we've got to hit line drives, and we've got to make the defense work a little bit."
Players say the underdog mentality will help.
"We feel like a lot of people kind of overlooked us, and we've proven this season that we can play with the best," WSU senior outfielder Paige Luellen said. "We feel like we're going into this as the underdog and we love that."
Bailey Lange concurs.
"It would be a lot of fun to get first," junior pitcher Lange said. "So we just have to relax and know that we can do this because we know we have the team to do it."
WSU's success has been a surprise to most outside of the program. After losing nine seniors from last season, WSU has a chance at a conference title, a RPI of 31, and a strong case to play in what would be just its fourth NCAA Tournament in program history as an at-large berth.
Four players are hitting above .300 in Mackenzie Wright (.384 average, 35 runs), Ryleigh Buck (.324, 34 runs, six home runs, 28 RBIs), Luellen (.317, six home runs, 28 RBIs), and Laurie Derrico (.300, 10 home runs, 34 RBIs).
"This has definitely been one of my more enjoyable teams," said Bredbenner, in her seventh season. "This is a group of girls you don't ever have to question if they're giving their all and if they love this game. They're a tough team to beat and I hope we show that this weekend."