Tom Smart, Deseret News
PROVO — For the BYU softball team, there were some bumps on the road to its eighth consecutive NCAA softball tournament appearance.
Take the season-opener, when Oregon State battered the Cougars, 22-5, back on Feb. 9.
"That put a little bit of doubt in everybody's mind," recalled coach Gordon Eakin. "We had never lost like that since I've been here."
Then there was the weekend they were swept in the regular season by Fresno State. And a humiliating loss to Idaho State. And a tough setback at Louisiana Tech.
But every time, BYU learned from the experience and bounced back.
The Cougars (43-13), who have won 14 consecutive games and claimed the Western Athletic Conference tournament championship last weekend — including victories over No. 11 ranked Hawaii in the semifinals and Fresno State in the title tilt — return to the NCAAs Thursday (4 p.m. MT) with a showdown against Mississippi State (33-22).
BYU reached the regional finals a year ago and competed in the Super Regional the year before that.
For Eakin, going to the NCAAs isn't an experience he takes for granted. Once again, the Cougars are looking to advance deep into the tournament.
"It certainly never gets old. But getting to the tournament is not enough," he said. "It's a challenge every year to continue to play at the level that you've played before and elevate your program beyond that. Getting to the regionals is a culmination of your efforts. Over the last several years, we've either made it to the championship round or the Super Regional. We've got that taste of what it's like to play at that higher level. There's more pressure and more on the line. We're not intimidated by it. It gives us more fight to achieve that. It's difficult to be one of the last 16 teams in the country fighting in the College World Series. We had that taste in 2010. So many of our players have done it, that's where we expect to be."
Other teams in the Eugene Regional include No. 11-seed and host Oregon, which takes on Portland State on Thursday. Early in the season, the Cougars defeated both the Ducks and the Vikings.
This team is different from some of Eakin's recent squads at BYU.
"We have to score runs in different ways. We don't have the power numbers we've had in the past," he said. "Our home runs are probably half of what they normally are. We have to generate runs and find ways to win. And we just don't have the game experience we've had in the past. The thing about this team that's different from past teams is that it finds ways to win. We've had seven or eight walk-off wins. This team finds a way to do it."
Leading the way at the plate has been WAC player of the year Delaney Willard. The senior outfielder is No. 2 in the nation in RBIs (88), having broken the 14-year-old WAC record of 77. She could break the school record for RBIs of 90 set by Angeline Quiocho.
Willard has also belted 18 home runs and is ranked in the top 25 nationally this season in several offensive categories.
"I've been around a lot of great players, but in terms of a single-season contribution to what the team has achieved, and the consistency of that contribution, I've never seen any better," Eakin said of Willard. "It's been a rare occasion when she hasn't been the one to get a rally going with a big hit. It's been a magical year. She's carried us many times. She's been the one that's stepped up with a big hit or RBI. She rises to the occasion and does it with consistency. Without her contributions, we wouldn't be where we are today."
Willard relishes the role of being a clutch performer.
"I like that pressure put on me," she said. "I like coming up with two outs and bases loaded and having a chance to drive in the winning run."
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