For much of the season, the BYU softball team languished with a losing record.
That wasn’t entirely unexpected, considering that the Cougars played an arduous early-season schedule and had a young roster.
But BYU (33-21) has grown up and is riding a 15-game winning streak as it enters NCAA tournament play Thursday with a game against Northwestern (33-18) in Seattle.
“The players have matured. We have a very young team,” said coach Gordon Eakin. “In the starting lineup, we’ll have six freshmen and a sophomore. Early in the season, it was adapting from high school and travel-ball teams to Division I softball. It’s a big learning curve. It’s just through the season we gained experience and confidence. That was the biggest contributor to the way we finished.”
One of the freshmen leading the way is pitcher McKenna Bull, who owns a 14-9 record, a 3.31 ERA, and a team-high 146 innings pitched.
“We started off pretty rocky,” said Bull, who hails from Ogden. “To be in this groove right before regionals is really good for us. It feels good because we have this confidence built.”
Bull said the last few weeks have been special for her.
“It took a long time for me to get comfortable. But now that I am comfortable, I feel like I can do anything,” she said. “I’ve been pitching pretty strong and I hope to carry that on to the postseason.”
The turning point might have come in late March, when BYU upset No. 2 Oregon, 6-5, in Provo.
“I felt like my team was behind me and if I pitched my heart out, we’d win,” Bull said. “And we did.”
Eakin said Bull is one of the reasons for the Cougars’ recent success.
“She’s finished great. She was one of those freshmen that had her eyes opened when she first got here and pitched against quality hitters and you can’t afford to make a mistake against them. That shook her confidence at first. But she grew immensely from the first part of the year and now is throwing great. She’s the real deal and a large part of the reason why we’re doing as well as we are.”
The Cougars will rely heavily on Bull and senior pitcher Tori Almond in the tournament.
“We’re a really good one-two punch and that’s benefited the team a lot,” said Almond, who prepped at Bingham High.
In 2011, when Almond was a freshman, the Cougars were also dispatched to Seattle for the NCAA tournament. BYU advanced to the regional championship game that season.
“That was my first regional and it’s going to be my last,” Almond said. “It’s kind of interesting. I have some experience there. I think it’s good for us.”
Meanwhile, this will be Bull’s first tournament experience, and she’s looking forward to it.
“I’m expecting a challenge, but I am so excited,” she said. “This is what I’ve worked my whole life for. The tournament is what every softball player dreams of when they’re growing up. Growing up, you watch all the big teams. I thought, ‘I want to be there someday.’ Now that I’m in their position, it feels fantastic.”
This marks BYU's 10th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
“We’re excited,” Almond said. “That’s always our goal — to win a conference championship and go to the NCAA tournament. To go for the fourth time in my career is a privilege.”
The Cougars have achieved this despite being college softball nomads. BYU has played in four different conferences in four years, including the West Coast Conference this season, as the program dealt with the school’s parting ways with the Mountain West Conference in 2011.
“It’s been kind of weird, but it’s been fun, though, because we get to play so many different teams,” Almond said. “I got to the point where I just showed up and played. I couldn’t keep track.”
Eakin said bouncing around from conference to conference the past four seasons has been tough, but it’s been rewarding as well.
“We’ve adopted the philosophy that we’ll play where you send us, because we had to. We were just grateful to be playing. I never would have imagined we’d be in four different conferences in four years, let alone winning four different conferences. It’s been a fun ride. I don’t think I’d want to do it again. But it’s been a lot of different venues, a lot of different (opponents), a lot of different opportunities. It’s been kind of enjoyable.”