It's a big team goal of ours this year to get into the Super Regionals and even farther. We're grateful for the opportunity and real excited to be able to play so close to home this time. —Caitlyn Larsen Alldredge
PROVO — The No. 21-ranked BYU softball team dominated West Coast Conference play in 2017. How that dominating play translates during the NCAA Tournament we'll soon find out.
The Cougars (44-11, 14-1 WCC) take on Mississippi State (36-20, 10-14 SEC) Thursday at 4 p.m. in their first game of a regional hosted by the University of Utah at Dumke Family Softball Stadium. The 64-team tournament features 16 regionals, with the top team from each regional advancing to the 16-team Super Regional round.
The Cougars enter Thursday's game heavily decorated, speaking loudly to their dominating 14-1 run through WCC play. Caitlyn Larsen Alldredge was named WCC Player of the Year, McKenna Bull was WCC Pitcher of the Year, Lauren Bell was Defensive Player of the Year, and Rylee Jensen was named Co-Freshman Player of the Year. Coach Gordon Eakin was named WCC Coach of the Year for the fifth straight season.
But WCC play is one thing and the NCAA Tournament is another, as the Cougars know quite well.
Thursday will mark BYU's 13th consecutive appearance in the tournament, although it hasn't reached the Super Regional round since 2010.
"It's a big team goal of ours this year to get into the Super Regionals and even farther," Alldredge said. "We're grateful for the opportunity and real excited to be able to play so close to home this time."
Although they don't want to talk about it too much, the team is excited about the prospect of playing No. 11 Utah again. Back on March 22, the Cougars upset the Utes 4-3, with coaches and players making no secret of how big a win it was at the time.
"I'm sure there's talk amongst the girls about the possibility of playing Utah again, but our focus can't be there," Eakin said. "Our culture has been one pitch, one inning and one game at a time — that's what we've built here. So the focus now is on Mississippi State, and they'll be a big challenge."
The Bulldogs were the No. 9 seed in the SEC tournament and lost in the first round to eventual SEC champion Ole Miss. But despite that early exit, Eakin knows Mississippi State's team will be a tough out.
"They've been playing top teams all year with the conference they're in, so they're coming in battle-tested and ready," Eakin said. "Their strength is their great pitching staff and they play really good defense. They're tough to score on and we're certainly not overlooking them."
What adds considerably to the team's excitement is the opportunity to play a regional so close to home. Last year the Cougars traveled to Missouri for regional play.
"It will be fun for them to see it and see this level of play and intensity," Alldredge said. "We couldn't get many people out to Missouri last year, so we're definitely excited to get more out this year. It should be a lot of fun."
"I think it's a big thing for these girls and just the opportunity to play in regionals is something that's a great accomplishment and well deserved," Eakin said. "Even though we get to play real close to home and it is a special thing and hopefully we can rise to the occasion, it's not going to be easy."
Rising to the occasion and advancing to the next round will require several factors.
"You have to get some breaks and you need to be playing at your best," Eakin said. "Every team that wins a regional has some breaks that go with it and hopefully we'll have some come our way. And then defense and pitching — having those two things are huge in any tournament."