Every athlete on Wichita State’s softball team has won a Missouri Valley Conference title, 11 of them two. All of them, however, are winless in the conference tournament.
As the No. 1 seed, for a second time in three seasons, the Shockers are in good company. They open play in Friday’s semifinals against either Missouri State or Southern Illinois in Carbondale, Ill.
“We just want to win,” WSU third baseman Liz Broyles said. “Every year that I’ve been here, we really didn’t show up for the first game.”
That first game is all there is in the MVC’s single-elimination format, which started in 2007. The last No. 1 seed to win the tournament is Creighton in 2007. A No. 1 seed last won a game in 2010. WSU, also the top seed in 2014, hasn’t won since 2010, falling in the semifinals in 2014 and last season as the fourth-seeded host.
WSU coach Kristi Bredbenner prefers a double-elimination format that is similar to NCAA regionals. She said changing the format comes up yearly at meetings. Coaches won’t vote to change, regardless of the format. The top two seeds earn double-byes into the semifinals and must win two games to win the title. Lower-seeded teams must win three or four, which wasn’t an issue the past two seasons for No. 4 Bradley or No. 8 Indiana State.
“I’ve been on the losing end a couple times, so obviously I’m a little salty about how it’s set up,” Bredbenner said. “It’s obvious we’re not doing the No. 1 seed any favors. Last year, I lost by seven votes.”
While those results are great for drama, it means the MVC often isn’t sending its strongest representative to NCAA play.
So it’s up to WSU to play like the team that compiled a 33-19 record and won 12 of its final 13 games. They are No. 50 in the NCAA’s softball RPI, which marks them as a possible at-large team.
This weekend, however, Bredbenner wants the Shockers to think of themselves as an underdog — the No. 1 seed dogged by history and a possible matchup with host Southern Illinois, seeded fourth, looming on Friday.
“You’re getting a lot of things that are not in your favor,” Bredbenner said. “Let’s take that and run with it.”
WSU brings one of the MVC’s best offenses to Carbondale, led by Player of the Year Cacy Williams and an experienced lineup. The Shockers lead the MVC in batting average (.309) and slugging percentage (.488) and are second with 57 home runs, one behind Northern Iowa. It is up to pitchers Katie Malone and Jenni Brooks, who struggled in the regular-season finale against SIU, to keep opposing offenses under control and give the bats time to do their thing.
“We just have to act like it’s just another game,” outfielder Paige Luellen said. “We’ve played all these teams before. We can’t let the nerves, with it being the conference tournament, get to us.”
Luellen, a sophomore from Tulsa, sat out last season with a knee injury. Her return added another power threat to a strong lineup. She is hitting .338 with 11 home runs, second on the team, and 47 RBIs.
“She always brings that intensity to the game, like she’s going to always get on, whether it’s a walk, a hit by pitch or, most likely, a home run,” Broyles said.
WSU’s five seniors and five juniors played large roles in the 2014 championship and, after finishing fourth in 2015, returned to push the Shockers back on top. Bredbenner is counting on their experience this weekend. WSU clinched a share of the title with a come-from-behind win over Missouri State and won the title outright with a rally against SIU. She hopes those efforts are a sign that a bit of adversity won’t be fatal.
“We’ve got really great senior leadership that has risen to the occasion,” Bredbenner said. “If you have that kind of leadership in the conference tournament … I think we’ve got a good chance. We’ve got a really great hitting team. We’ve got good defense. Our pitchers have to show up.”
In 2014, fourth-seeded Bradley defeated WSU 4-2 on its way to the title. Last season, No. 8 Indiana State upset the Shockers 5-1. Friday is this group’s final chance to show what it can do in the tournament and qualify for WSU’s first NCAA berth since 2005.
“We’ve got to relax and play,” Bredbenner said. “I believe 100 percent that if we get past Game One, we’re going to win the whole thing.”
at Carbondale, Ill.
Missouri State 6, Bradley 3
Illinois St. 2, Evansville 0
No. 8 Missouri State (22-29) vs. No. 4 Southern Illinois (32-18), 11 a.m.
No. 7 Illinois State (19-32) vs. No. 3 Northern Iowa (38-18), 1:30 p.m.
No. 1 Wichita State (33-19) vs. MSU/SIU winner, 4 p.m.
No. 2 Drake (29-23) vs. UNI/ISU winner, 6:30 p.m.
Championship, 1 p.m.