NEWS, NOTES &
The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
By Bethany Bradsher
Still knocking on that
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WANTED: Blueprints to an escape route through the Division I glass
ceiling. All traditional tools (numerous victories, strong schedules,
national rankings) have been tried and found ineffective.
Ladder through the glass barrier MUST lead to national postseason
tournament. If you can help, please contact the East Carolina softball and
If you measure by large steps, there was plenty to celebrate this season
about ECU softball. Freshman Toni Paisley made a big statement with seven
C-USA Pitcher-of-the-Week honors. The Pirates won two towering tournament
trophies in the first month of the season. And they prevailed in a
resounding 40 games.
As it turns out, though, it was the small steps back accompanying the large
steps forward that cost the Lady Pirates (40-15) the postseason bid they
seemed destined to claim. In just a few days, they went from a No. 2 C-USA
seed with the world at their feet to another group of college students with
With 13 years as a head coach under her belt, head softball coach Tracey Kee
has acute perspective on the instability of win-loss records and the
capriciousness of tournament selection committees. In the past decade, Kee
has led five squads to records exceeding 50 wins, and only one of those
teams made the NCAA field.
But this year seemed even more promising, in large part because of ECU’s
success in C-USA play. The Lady Pirates won 19 conference games in the
regular season, the most since ECU joined the conference seven years ago.
Heading into the C-USA tournament two weeks ago, they seemed to hold a clear
advantage over their opponents from Texas-El Paso, the home team and a No. 7
seed. But UTEP capitalized on its strengths and its home crowd and battled
the Pirates to a 4-3 win in 13 innings.
That one run became one
of the biggest small things to trip up the team. When a team is little
known, the conference tournament carries an inordinate amount of weight come
selection time, but ECU players and boosters still held out hope for good
news on that Sunday night.
Besides that UTEP loss,
the Pirates’ postseason hopes were derailed by other one-run losses, most
notably two defeats at the hands of North Carolina, a 2-1 loss to Notre Dame
and a 1-0 loss to Michigan when the Wolverines were ranked No. 4 nationally.
Kee’s theory, shared by
others who have followed the program closely, is that if just one of those
squeakers had come out in the Pirates’ favor they would have continued their
The most concrete answer
to the postseason puzzle is, of course, the automatic bid. Six months ago,
the women’s soccer team won 12 games in a row and marched through its C-USA
tournament until the final game, when it lost to Memphis. Despite an
exemplary season and an overall record of 14-4-4, these Lady Pirates also
failed to secure an at-large bid, and the selection committee cited
insufficient strength of schedule.
Teams like softball and
soccer are close to knocking through that ceiling and finding themselves on
the right side of the tournament bubble. If they can win their conference
tournaments, it will assure them their rightful place in a bracket and, like
the C-USA champion football team this year, elevate their profile
But even if tournament
trophies are the clearest road to the postseason, both women’s soccer and
softball have tournament structures with only 30 automatic bids and 34
at-large slots. That leaves an extraordinary margin of interpretation for
selection committees, and Pirate squads seem to get almost no benefit of the
In contrast, take schools
like Mississippi State, which received an at-large bid with a 28-26 overall
record, even though its 8-19 conference record wasn’t even enough to qualify
for the SEC Tournament. Auburn, likewise, finished the regular season 29-27
and 9-19 in the SEC and got a shot at the postseason.
But the most puzzling
opportunity may have fallen at the feet of Jacksonville State, a school of
about 9,400 in Alabama and an at-large selection for the NCAA tournament.
The JSU Gamecocks’
record? 39-13, almost identical to ECU’s. Their conference tournament
success? They lost in the second round of the Ohio Valley Conference
tournament to Tennessee-Martin. Strength of schedule? They beat Ole Miss
twice during the season, but lost to Alabama, Auburn, Louisville and Georgia
The Lady Pirates, in
contrast, lost by one run to three big programs and also fell to Alabama.
But a committee looking for big Division I wins could take their pick from
wins over Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida State, Indiana, N.C. State and
It turns out that
Jacksonville State was no flash in the pan: The Lady Gamecocks are on their
way to a Super Regional. But the Pirates should have gotten a chance to
follow a similar road. Maybe next season they’ll string together enough big
steps to charge down that road unencumbered.
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05/20/2009 03:33:24 AM