The final two weeks of the regular season imbued the Wichita State softball team with the confidence that it could capture the American Athletic Conference tournament championship this week in Houston.
That’s because the Shockers are the only team in the conference that has victories over the top two teams after beating Tulsa 4-0 on April 26 and winning the series against South Florida, highlighted by a 10-0 drubbing in five innings last Saturday.
No. 4 WSU (31-24, 12-9 AAC) will open in the AAC quarterfinals at approximately 11:30 a.m. Thursday against No. 5 Central Florida (34-20, 11-10 AAC) with the game live-streamed on American Digital Network Plus on Facebook. The winner will advance to play the winner of No. 1 South Florida (39-17)-No. 8 Memphis (22-32) in the semifinals at 1 p.m. Friday. The championship game, broadcast on ESPN2, is 11 a.m. Saturday.
“We have confidence because I think nobody wants to play us,” WSU coach Kristi Bredbenner said. “We had two weeks in a row where we got big wins in the first game of the series (against Tulsa and USF). When we play well, we’re a really darn tough team to beat.”
Injuries have robbed WSU of three crucial starters — ace Bailey Lange, outfielder Asea Webber and Kaylee Huecker at second base — which has led to an uneven season. The Shockers have had their fare share of head-scratching losses, likely eliminating them from consideration for an at-large bid to a NCAA regional, but they also showed their potential in Game 1 wins over Tulsa and South Florida.
Sophomore ace Erin McDonald has blossomed in the final month of the season, maintaining a 0.96 earned-run average in her last 36 1/3 innings with a 2.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
That makes the Shockers a dangerous team: They finished with the most potent offense in the American this season, hitting 50 home runs — 16 more than the next-closest team in the conference. Madison Perrigan (.338 average, 11 home runs, 43 RBIs) at catcher, Ryleigh Buck (.304 average, 9 home runs, 36 RBIs) at first base, Laurie Anne Derrico (.272 average, 7 home runs, 44 runs) at shortstop and Sydney McKinney (.329 average, 32 runs) at third base were all named first-team all-conference on Wednesday.
“I think we always knew we could make a run like this,” said McDonald, who was named second-team all-conference. “It was about finally putting the pieces together and peaking at the right time.”
After reaching a NCAA regional championship game for the first time in program history last spring, WSU knows it has to embrace its underdog role this week and rattle off three straight wins and return to the postseason. WSU won the first game of a series five out of seven times this season, but lost Game 2 four times, three times by just one run.
Bredbenner knows the talent is there for WSU to make a run this week, but consistency is a must. The confidence gained the last two weeks should help with that.
“We’re going in looking at this as the spoiler team,” Bredbenner said. “I don’t think there is a team that wants to play us right now. We’ve had some major adversity this year and it’s been really great to see how hard people have been working. Some kids I thought needed a year or two to get to that point to be counted on have stepped up and done a great job. Now we’re looking at this an opportunity to start plucking people off.”
AAC softball tournament schedule (at Houston)
Thursday — No. 1 South Florida vs. No. 8 Memphis, 9:05 a.m.; No. 4 Wichita State vs. No. 5 Central Florida, approx. 11:30 a.m.; No. 2 Tulsa vs. No. 7 East Carolina, approx. 2 p.m.; No. 3 Houston vs. No. 6 Connecticut, approx. 4:30 p.m. Friday — USF-Memphis winner vs. WSU-UCF winner, 1 p.m.; Tulsa-ECU winner vs. Houston-UConn winner, 3:30 p.m. Saturday — Championship game, 11 a.m. (on ESPN2).
AAC softball award winners
Players of the Year — Sarah Barker, Houston, outfield and Julia Hollingsworth, Tulsa, outfield. Pitcher of the Year — Georgina Corrick, USF. Defensive Player of the Year — Macy Cook, USF, catcher. Rookie of the Year — Chenise Delce, Tulsa, pitcher. Coaching Staff of the Year — USF.
First team — Georgina Corrick, USF, pitcher; Alea White, UCF, pitcher; Madison Perrigan, WSU, catcher; Ashley Threatt, Memphis, first base; Ryleigh Buck, first base; Arielle James, Houston, second base; Sydney McKinney, WSU, third base; Laurie Derrico, WSU, shortstop; Briana Marcelino, UConn, SS; Julia Hollingsworth, Tulsa, outfield; Maya Thomas, Houston, outfield; Sarah Barker, Houston, outfield; AnaMarie Bruni, USF, outfield; Savannah Heebner, Houston, utility; Chenise Delce, Tulsa, utility; Olivia Sappington, UConn, utility.
Second team — Presley Bell, Houston, pitcher; Samantha Pochop, Tulsa, pitcher; Erin McDonald, WSU, pitcher; Cassady Brewer, UCF, catcher; Rylie Spell, Tulsa, catcher; Morgan Neal, Tulsa, infield; Lindsey Devitt, USF, infield; Alyssa Dean, Memphis, infield; Carli Cutler, UConn, infield; Reese Guevarra, UConn, outfield; Haley Meinen, Tulsa, outfield; Baylee Smith, Memphis, outfield; Brooke Hartman, USF, utility.
All-Rookie team — Damaria Cannon, UCF, outfield; Karissa Ornelas, UCF, catcher; Breanna Vasquez, UCF, pitcher; Alexis Lemus, UConn, second base; Alyssa Dean, Memphis, second base; Meghan Sheehan, USF, outfield; Chenise Delce, Tulsa, pitcher; Sydney McKinney, WSU, third base.