Tom Smart, Deseret News
EUGENE, Ore. — The BYU softball team has already overcome a lot this season, but the Cougars will have to overcome their biggest challenge yet to advance out of their NCAA first-round regional hosted by No. 3 seed Oregon.
During the final inning of BYU's final game of the season against Utah — a game that held no postseason implications — senior star JC Clayton sustained an MCL injury that effectively ended her career. With the Cougars holding a 4-0 lead in the top of the seventh, Clayton planted her cleat wrong attempting to run down a Ute base runner hung up between second and third base.
“When I learned that we had lost JC for the season it felt like the Titanic hitting the iceberg,” said BYU coach Gordon Eakin. “She’s our leadoff hitter, our shortstop and our leader. I don’t know how you replace everything she did for this team, but all we can do is try and hope for the best. It‘s devastating for our team, but it‘s even more devastating for her to have to end her remarkable career like that.”
Fortunately, Eakin's team has made a habit of overcoming adversity throughout the 2012-13 season. A rash of early injuries at key positions forced players to step up and adjust to the loses. After a slow start, the team responded.
The Cougars enter the postseason as Pacific Coast Conference champions and winners of 16 of their last 17 games.
“This team has overcome so much this season and we’re definitely gelling at the right time, which is something we’ve seemed able to do most years,” Eakin said. “This will be our ninth-straight year when we’ve made the postseason tournament, and we’ve certainly played well, but now we’ll have to adjust again and deal with the loss of JC.”
Eakin has received key contributions from players like freshman Gordy Bravo, who leads the team in hitting (.393), junior Katie Manuma, who leads the team in RBIs (44) and senior Alexandra Hudson-Shamo, who leads the team in on-base percentage (.467).
Eakin will attempt to replace Clayton with Madison Robb, who will move over from third base, and maybe some others.
“We haven’t played without JC all year, so we’ll have to see what our best options end up being at shortstop and at the top of the order,” Eakin said. “It hurts, but all we can do is move on and try to get this done without her. We still have a lot of great players who have really stepped up this year and now they’ll have to ask them to step up again.”
BYU will square off against host Oregon Thursday at 7 p.m. MDT at Howe Field. North Carolina and Wisconsin will kick off the regional at 4 p.m. MDT.
BYU played in the Eugene, Ore., regional last year after winning the Western Athletic Conference tournament. It defeated Mississippi State and Portland State in the regional but was ultimately eliminated after losing twice to Oregon. The Cougars are 3-6 overall against the Ducks and have yet to beat them on their home field.
"Oregon is a great team, but we're playing well and tournaments like these are all about teams accomplishing things no one thinks you're capable of," Eakin said. "I like our attitude and we've proven to be a resilient team, so I'm excited to see what these girls are capable of."
Game matchups throughout the regional are as follows (all times listed are MDT):
Thursday, May 16
Game 1 — North Carolina-Wisconsin, 4 p.m.
Game 2 — No. 3 seed Oregon-BYU, 7 p.m.
Friday, May 17
Game 3 — Game 1-2 winners, noon
Game 4 — Game 1-2 losers, 3 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 4 winner-Game 3 loser, 6 p.m.
Saturday, May 18
Game 6 — NCAA regional final, 1 p.m.
Game 7 — NCAA regional final (if necessary), 4 p.m.
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