SFA Set For NCAA Championships
May 15, 2008
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -
NCAA REGIONAL INFORMATION
SFA at NCAA Championships
NCAA Championships: The Stephen F. Austin Ladyjack softball team will try to extend the best season in the program's Division I era this weekend when the Ladyjacks take on Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA Championships. The game is scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. start from the Aggie Softball Complex. SFA brings a 36-23 record to the weekend and is coming off its second Southland Conference Tournament title after winning three straight games at last week's league tournament in San Marcos, Texas. The Ladyjacks are in the NCAA Championships for the first time as a Division I program.
Last Time Out: After finishing the regular season by losing five of its last six games, SFA has warmed up in postseason play. The Ladyjacks reeled off three straight wins in last week's SLC Tournament, including one-run, come-from-behind victories in each of the last two. SFA, which came into the tournament as the No. 4 seed, opened play with an 8-0, six-inning verdict over No. 5 McNeese State on Thursday. Friday pitted SFA against regular-season champion and No. 1 seed Texas State. The Bobcats went ahead, 2-0, on a pair of unearned runs in the fourth, but senior Jessica Tullos put SFA up, 3-2, with a three-run homer in the top of the sixth. Freshman ace Monika Covington held Texas State off the board in the last two innings. The Ladyjacks were again down to their final six outs in Saturday's championship game before rallying for a 2-1 win over No. 6 Nicholls State. After playing from behind through four innings, SFA took advantage of a Nicholls State error to tie the score in the sixth. Then freshman Ashley Struchtemeyer lifted a walk-off home run over the right-center field wall in the bottom of the seventh. Struchtemeyer was one of five Ladyjacks named to the all-tournament team, along with Covington -- who was named the tournament MVP -- and Tullos. Covington pitched all 20 innings on three consecutive days and allowed just one earned run with 26 strikeouts.
Regional Lineup: In addition to SFA, the College Station Regional features host team and No. 5 national seed Texas A&M, along with Auburn and Louisiana Tech. The Aggies won both the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles and enter NCAA play with a 49-7 record. Texas A&M was voted fifth in the most recent ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 poll, and the Aggies are the No. 4 team in the latest USA Today/NFCA poll. Louisiana Tech is 35-27. The Bulldogs were fourth in the Western Athletic Conference regular season and won the WAC Tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships. Louisiana Tech received one vote in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll. Auburn is the only at-large team in the four-squad bracket. The Tigers (37-20) finished third in the SEC West Division and earned two votes in Tuesday's USA Today/NFCA poll.
SFA Against The Field: SFA met both Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech during the regular season. The Ladyjacks went 0-3 combined against the two teams. After opening the season with four straight wins, SFA traveled to College Station for a doubleheader at Texas A&M on Feb. 20. The Aggies took a 7-1 win in the opener and claimed a 3-0 verdict in Game 2. On Feb. 29, the Ladyjacks met Louisiana Tech in the Ole Miss Red and Blue Classic. The Lady Techsters took a 4-3 win the second defeat of what would be a season-long five-game skid for SFA. Four of the five losses in that stretch were by one run.
NEWS AND NOTES
NCAA NEWCOMER: The Ladyjack softball program won the NCAA Division II championship in 1986, but this year's team is the first in program history to earn a berth in the NCAA Division I Championships.
THIRTY-SOMETHING: SFA finished the Southland Conference Tournament with a 36-23 record. The 36 wins are the third-most recorded by a Ladyjack team since joining the Southland Conference in 1988. The Ladyjacks' 36-23 record marks the program's first winning season since 2000 and is just the second time since 1994 for the team to finish at .500 or better. The '94 campaign saw the Ladyjacks go 31-31 on the year and was SFA's most recent 30-win season coming into this year's campaign.
BEGINNER'S LUCK?: It's tempting to chalk up Gay McNutt's first-year success to just that, considering she's been able to accomplish things no other SFA coach in the previous 18 years had achieved. But McNutt is a veteran with 14 years of head coaching experience to her credit and a history of building successful programs. She took Northwestern State from a perennial also-ran to a championship contender in just three years, and her teams have finished in the top eight of their respective conferences in each of the last 12 seasons, including nine top five finishes in that span.
SOUTHLAND SUCCESS: The Ladyjacks reached the Southland Conference Tournament this season, marking the first time that's happened since 1990, when SFA won its first SLC Tourney title. Despite not having qualified for the SLC Tournament field in 18 years, SFA entered postseason play with the fourth-best all-time tournament winning percentage among current SLC schools. The Ladyjacks improved on that mark by winning three straight games to move to 10-5 all-time in SLC Tournament action with three championship-round appearances and two titles. NOTE: SFA would have qualified for a six-team tournament field in both 1991 and 1994, but the SLC did not sponsor a postseason tournament between the years of 1991 and 1995.
WATCH FOR FALLING RECORDS: In addition to posting one of the best team seasons in program history, the Ladyjacks have assaulted several categories in the individual record books this season. SFA players have broken three single-season records -- Kendal Harper holds the new marks for hits (72) and stolen bases (28), while Jessica Tullos is the new leader in home runs (11) -- and a big career mark with Jessica Tullos' new record of 23 home runs in her four-year career. Three other single-season marks -- RBI, doubles and triples -- are in serious jeopardy, and Tullos is just three RBI short of tying that category's career mark.
ALL-CONFERENCE: Senior Jessica Tullos and freshman Monika Covington were both named to the First-Team All-Southland Conference squad -- Tullos at first base and Covington as a pitcher. This marks the first time since 1998 for the Ladyjacks to land multiple selections on the first-team list. Covington was also named SLC Freshman of the Year, the first such honor for any Ladyjack frosh since the program joined the Southland. SFA's last All-SLC superlative honor was Angela Froboese's Utility Player of the Year selection in 2001. Two more Ladyjacks were also named to this year's All-SLC teams. Sophomore outfielder Kendal Harper was a second-team selection, and junior catcher Kim Daley was named to the third team. The last time SFA had as many as four players named to the all-conference teams was 1998, when Julie Kilgo, Jamie Coles, Shandy Ward and Froboese made the list.
PITCHER PERFECT: The Ladyjacks posted a 3.91 earned run average in 2007, a figure that ranked eighth in the 11-team Southland Conference. A year later, SFA's staff leads the SLC with a 1.87 ERA, the only team ERA in the conference lower than 2.38 at the end of the SLC Tournament. In all, the Ladyjacks rank in the top three among SLC teams in nine key pitching statistical categories. SFA leads the league in batters struck out (383), batters struck out looking (78), wins (36), runs allowed (139), earned runs allowed (107) and walks allowed (77).
SWITCH HITTING: In just one season, SFA has gone from one of the worst offensive teams in the Southland Conference to one of the league's best. The Ladyjacks hit .229 in 2007, which ranked ninth in the SLC. They finished the 2008 SLC Tournament with a .278 team batting average, second-best in the conference and just three percentage points off the top mark set by UT-Arlington. SFA finished among the top three teams in the league in 15 offensive categories and leads the SLC in runs scored (269), hits (435), runs batted in (239), triples (15) and total bases (665).
POWER SURGE: SFA is putting up power numbers in 2008 the likes of which have never been seen by the Ladyjack softball program. SFA's 43 home runs are a new team record, with the next-highest total shown in available records being the 2006 team mark of 26.
FRESH ARM: Freshman pitcher Monika Covington has made an immediate impact in her first season with the Ladyjacks. Covington's 1.30 ERA leads the team and ranks second in the Southland Conference. She holds a 20-12 record and is the SLC leader in innings pitched with 231.2 and strikeouts with 258. Covington's 258 strikeouts are the most for any SFA pitcher since Chrissy Autry recorded 271 in 2004. Her 17 wins are the second-most in the SLC and the most for a Ladyjack hurler since Sandy Green recorded 20 victories in the 1990 season.
LOCKED WHEN LOADED: Opponents have a .210 batting average overall against freshman Monika Covington. But Covington is holding opposing batters to a .150 average in bases-loaded situations. In 20 at-bats with the bases juiced, she has surrendered just three hits -- all singles -- and has recorded 10 strikeouts.
GOLDEN HARP: Sophomore outfielder Kendal Harper leads the Ladyjacks with a .381 batting average. That figure ranks fourth in the Southland Conference. She leads the league in stolen bases with 28 and is second in the SLC in hits with a school-record 72. Harper also ranks in the top 10 in the conference in runs, doubles, triples, total bases, sacrifice bunts, total plate appearances, at-bats and steal attempts.
HOME (RUN) COOKIN': With her roots in Lufkin, Texas, senior Jessica Tullos is the closest thing the Ladyjacks have to a hometown product. Apparently, East Texas agrees with her swing. Tullos is batting .331, second on the team, and has set both the single-season and career SFA records for home runs this season. Her 11 homers in 2008 rank third in the SLC, and she has hit 22 for her career. The .338 average is a new high for Tullos, who came into this season with a career average of .266, having never batted better than .300 for a season.
DEPENDABLE DALEY: While her .213 batting average doesn't reflect it, junior Kim Daley has been one of the most productive bats in the Ladyjack lineup, rating among the team leaders in all crucial power numbers. Daley is sixth in slugging percentage at .425, third in runs batted in with 30, and third in home runs with seven. Her 13 doubles lead the team, and her 23 runs scored rank fifth on the squad. What's more, she's done it while playing perhaps the most physically demanding position on the diamond -- catcher. Daley has been behind the dish for all but one of the Ladyjacks' 59 games this season.
YOUTH MOVEMENT: Freshmen have played some key roles in SFA's impressive 2008 season. Both the Ladyjacks' top two pitchers -- Monika Covington and Lauren Luetge -- are rookies. The duo has combined for 31 of the team's 36 wins and carries a joint ERA of 1.68. SFA's other two freshmen, second baseman Ashley Struchtemeyer and outfielder Monica Hirsch, have been impact players at the plate. Struchtemeyer's .298 batting average ranks fourth on the team, and she is second on the squad with eight home runs, including her walk-off bomb to win the SLC Tournament championship game over Nicholls State. Hirsch has batted in the leadoff spot in 23 games for SFA and is right behind Struchtemeyer with a .277 season average.
STREAKING: Six different SFA players have put together hitting streaks of five games or longer this season. Sophomore Kendal Harper's nine-game hit streak to begin the season is the best on the team so far. She saw her batting average climb as high as .786 during the run, which ended on Feb. 23. Harper has since posted two more streaks of seven games apiece and leads the team with 21 multi-hit games.
STARTING STRONG: SFA has done a good job of getting its leadoff batters on this season. The Ladyjacks hit .287 as a team and have a .390 on-base percentage in at-bats that lead off innings. Both of those figures are better than the team's season averages in the respective categories.
CLUTCH HITS: SFA's batting average moves from .278 to .289 when hitting with runners in scoring position. The Ladyjacks not only hit the ball more often in that situation, they seem to hit the ball harder. Twenty-three of SFA's 43 home runs have come with runners in scoring position, as have 23 of the team's 71 doubles this season. Sophomore Kendal Harper leads the squad with a .418 batting average and 25 RBI in 55 opportunities when she has runners at second or third.
IN A PINCH: When head coach Gay McNutt decides to tinker with her lineup, the results are usually positive. In 13 pinch-hit at-bats this season, the Ladyjacks have posted five base hits for a .385 average in pinch-hit situations. Moriah Davis is a team-best 2-for-2 in pinch-hitting opportunities.
BREAK IT OPEN: The Ladyjacks have been best served this season when they've been able to take an early lead and pile on the run support. SFA is just 7-14 in one-run games but has an 18-2 record when the final margin is five runs or greater. In addition, the Ladyjacks are 27-5 when they score first, versus a 9-18 record when the opponent draws first blood.
THREE-FOUR, SHUT THE DOOR: The third and fourth innings have been crucial for SFA this season. The Ladyjacks have scored more runs in those two innings than any other -- 54 in the third and 44 in the fourth for a combined average of 1.66 runs per game. Additionally, when SFA can get past the fourth inning with a lead, the Ladyjacks have proven hard to beat. SFA is 30-2 this season when leading after four innings. However, the Ladyjacks have come from behind to win after trailing through four innings just four times in 20 chances.
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-- SFA --