OKLAHOMA CITY (April 26, 2013) – Ask Oklahoma Christian softball coach Tom Heath what he knows about the Lady Eagles’ potential foes in the National Christian College Athletic Association Central Region tournament and his answer is short.
There's a good reason why. While OC has fielded a softball team for 19 years, the Lady Eagles have never faced any of the other five teams in the regional, which will be played Saturday at City of Colleges Park in Conway, Ark.
OC (20-21) is seeded third and will face sixth-seeded Hillsdale Baptist (6-32) of Moore in a first-round game at 10 a.m. A win would propel the Lady Eagles into a semifinal game at 2 p.m. against second-seeded Oklahoma Wesleyan (30-13).
The semifinal winner will face the survivor of the other semifinal, most likely top-seeded tournament host Central Baptist (Ark.) (28-10), assuming the Mustangs get by either Crowley’s Ridge (Ark.) (7-11) or Ecclesia (Ark.) (1-16). The title game is set for 6 p.m., with the winner to play in the NCCAA Championship, scheduled for May 9-11 in Troutville, Va.
Heath and assistant coaches Jessica Ruckman and Steve Gault have scoured the Internet and worked the phones this week to try and gather information on the teams in the regional field, with only modest success.
“It comes down to getting through the first two and playing Central Baptist,” Heath said. “It’s three games in a day. It’s one day and it’s single elimination, so we can’t mess up and we can’t overlook anybody. We’ve got to play one game at a time.
“I think we’ve got enough talent on our team to beat these teams. ... Right now, we’re playing well.”
Hillsdale Baptist and OC played only one common opponent this season, Southwestern Christian. The Lady Eagles swept Southwestern Christian 12-0 and 20-2 in a season-opening doubleheader, while Hillsdale Baptist lost 9-1 and 13-4 to the same team. Heath doesn’t want the Lady Eagles to look past the Saints, however.
“You never know,” Heath said. “I don’t know what they’ve got, but … we’ve got to go play to win that game.”
Oklahoma Wesleyan won a pair of games against Southwestern Christian, 3-1 and 9-1, late in the season, and split four games with Central Baptist. OWU went 0-7 this season against teams from OC’s former league, the Sooner Athletic Conference. OWU is ranked 10th in the NCCAA.
OWU has a standout pitcher in Jenna Daniel, who has 113 strikeouts in 80 innings this season.
Central Baptist is receiving votes in the NAIA poll (although CBC isn’t in the top 25) and is No. 5 in the NCCAA rankings. The Mustangs played a mostly NAIA schedule, although they did sweep NCAA Division II Henderson State (Ark.) to open the season and also owns a sweep of NCAA Division I Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
CBC’s Christen Kirchner broke the NAIA’s career home-run record and enters the tournament with 18 homers, the most in the NCCAA this season. Her .439 batting average is 12th in the NCCAA and her .976 slugging percentage is tops nationally. Pitcher Jessica Sheldon has 116 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings.
“Central Baptist has a quality program,” Heath said. “They’ve only lost two or three games in their conference. They could very easily qualify for the NAIA national tournament, so I know they’re good.”
It’s been a sometimes-trying season for OC. Because of stadium construction, the Lady Eagles didn’t have a true home field in 2013 and weather issues resulted in OC playing only seven games all season at its alternate home sites, Edmond North High School and ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. The most recent of those games was on March 26.
Two scheduled home series against Heartland Conference foes had to be moved to the road because of the weather, the latter wiping out the team’s scheduled Senior Day, at which left fielder Michelle Miller and pitcher Lindsy Moore were to be honored. Plus, as a first-year Heartland member, OC’s games didn’t count in the conference standings (although the Lady Eagles would have finished third in the league with a 9-8 conference mark).
But through it all, Heath said his team has fought through the adversity without complaining.
“We’ve been on the road the last four weekends and we’re on the road this week, which is alright,” Heath said. “This team has not complained about it. The travel has been tough … and they have been long trips, but we’ve made the best of it.
“There have been a lot of changes and a lot of inconvenience on everybody’s part, but we’ve managed. We’ve gotten through it. “
If the Lady Eagles can combine quality pitching with good hitting, Heath believes they could win the regional. A trip to a national tournament would lend a new perspective to this season’s challenges, he said.
“This team has competed,” he said. “They’ve competed every time we’ve played. I have no problem with the way this team competed every single game. Our goal at the very beginning of the season was to finish third in the conference, if you count our records, and we did, and then we wanted to qualify for NCCAA nationals. We’ve reached one and now we’re competing for that national spot.”