It’s not often teams are trying to suppress the great memories so quickly, but for the Lone Star Conference champion TWU Pioneers, last week’s emotional roller coaster is in the past and they aren’t ready to have their potential deep postseason run get off to a rough start.
The Pioneers will travel to Canyon to hopefully add another championship to their ledger as top-seeded TWU faces off against eighth-seeded Cameron in the single-elimination LSC Conference Championship tournament at 7 p.m. today.
“The key is to not let it go to your head but take the confidence that you can beat anybody,” TWU head coach Richie Bruister said. “But, if you get overconfident in this league, they will knock it off your shoulders really quick. If we go into it thinking we are going to win this because we are conference champs — no. You better be humble and know that doesn’t matter. That was last weekend, this is this weekend. It’s a whole new game.”
West Texas A&M is the No. 2 seed followed by Angelo State, Midwestern State, Tarleton State, Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian. Saturday will see the two semifinal games before the championship game on Sunday.
Last Saturday’s Lone Star Conference championship-clinching victories against fifth-ranked West Texas A&M culminated in the school’s first softball conference title, and the Pioneers knew their matchup with the Lady Buffs would be their stiffest test of the season.
“We came into last weekend’s series knowing it was going to be the hardest battle we were going to have to fight, especially coming off Abby Burn’s passing, and I think that alone has made us a stronger team,” senior LSC Golden-Glove winning third baseman Jordan Readicker said. “I had goose bumps the whole [final] inning. When the strikeout was thrown, the team went crazy. It was unbelievable, and I would do anything to watch it again.”
The Pioneers (43-12, 21-6 LSC) put together a spectacular run in conference play this season, losing only one series all season — to Midwestern State on the road, with both of their losses coming by one run and the rubber game ending in a 14-13 loss in extra innings.
TWU never lost two consecutive conference games this season either, and senior Lizzy Kelly said the team’s cohesion has only added to the talent it already has.
“This team has bonded really well throughout the offseason and in season competition,” said Kelly, who also earned a LSC Golden Glove with her play in left field. “We’re also friends, so I believe that helps us with playing together and outside of softball as well. The camaraderie is high on our team and that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
With a season’s worth of work behind them, the Pioneers want this weekend’s tournament to go better than last year’s as they claimed the No. 2 seed and faced No. 7 Incarnate Word, which they had just swept two weeks before and outscored 31-9. TWU fell 5-1 and was bounced from the tournament in the first round.
“We’ve learned from it, but the team doesn’t focus on what happened last year,” Bruister said. “We don’t focus on negative stuff. We learned to be prepared. It’s one and out, so you go out there with your best game plan. It will be a nice little tuneup for regionals. Last year, we had a lot of distractions. We’re getting the field ready as coaches, we were in a different dugout, it just didn’t feel right. I think it will be different this year.”
Among those distractions were TWU’s fight to be ranked in the top eight in the regional rankings, which punched their ticket to their second regional tournament in three years. With the Pioneers already assured a regional berth as the conference champions with a possibility of playing host to a regional bracket, their journey is a little better defined.
“We were fifth going in last year, so we knew we had a good shot of going to regionals, and this year we know we are going,” Bruister said. “It’s a good feeling. We are excited to play some tournament formats. We loved that in February when you get to play tournaments and you can declare a winner that weekend. You play different teams and there’s a different environment.”
Cameron comes into the LSC tournament with a record of 17-30 and 10-17 in conference play, but the Pioneers are likely to still face a challenge against starting pitcher Samantha Betts, who helped Cameron earn 13 of its 17 season victories.
“They’ve got good pitching and Betts is averaging almost a strikeout an inning, so we know she’s going to do well,” Bruister said. “She’s shut down teams this year. Their offense is scary because they’ve always had a good offense.”
With regionals and potentially a super regional and nationals still in front of them, the Pioneers are just looking forward to playing with a little less stress in the LSC tournament.
“The good thing about this week and everything we’ve been through is now we can go out and play softball and be relaxed,” Bruister said. “It’s going to be nice to be able to enjoy it, and I know the players are looking forward to it, too.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip