If the BYU softball team is going to repeat last year's feat of reaching the super regional in the NCAA Tournament, senior pitcher Paige Affleck will need to be at the top of her game.
The Cougars (38-16) open tournament play Thursday at 4:30 p.m. MT in the Seattle Regional against Auburn (39-17).
"Paige will have to pitch well and give us a chance to score a few runs," said coach Gordon Eakin. "We'll have to get some key hits because we're going to face some excellent pitching as well. Paige will be the key to it. If she's strong, I think we'll be strong."
Affleck, the Mountain West Conference's Pitcher of the Year, has a 24-11 record with an ERA of 1.97.
"She started slow this year, but she's really been the driver of our team the last two months because, obviously, this game revolves around solid pitching," Eakin said. "She's driven and experienced and she gives us a chance to win every game we go into."
Auburn beat the NCAA Tournament's No. 4 seed Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament before falling to No. 14 Tennessee. The Tigers have jumped into both Top 25 polls at No. 23 and No. 24, respectively.
"They've got great pitching and right now they're hitting the ball really well," Eakin said of the Tigers. "They come out of a tough conference and they've beat some very good teams in that conference over the last month. They're on a roll. I think that's the most significant thing, is the way they're playing as of late."
On Friday, the Cougars will meet either No. 12-seed Washington (34-14), which is hosting the regional or Portland State (34-16), winner of the Pacific Coast Softball Conference tournament. The group of four teams in the regional play a double-elimination format.
"You rarely go somewhere that's an easy path," said Eakin, who was named the MWC's Coach of the Year after leading BYU to its third consecutive MWC title. "This regional has three additional quality teams with Washington being a perennial power, and Auburn is probably playing their best ball of the season. They're really coming on at the end of the season. And Portland State is a solid team. We look forward to the challenge."
This marks BYU's seventh straight trip to the NCAA regionals. For the first time the Cougars advanced to the super regionals last year.
"Our success at the regionals over the last few years has given us the ability to not be intimidated by the atmosphere," Eakin said. "The super regionals is a whole new ball game, once you get there. We certainly don't have the same level of experience at super regionals. But in the regionals, we're accustomed to what's going to happen and we have experienced players who have been there. Our seniors have been there all four years. It really helps a lot."
NCAA SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT
Game 1: Auburn vs. BYU, 4:30 p.m.
Game 2: (12) Washington vs. Portland State, 7 p.m.
Game 3: Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner of Game 2, 4 p.m.
Game 4: Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2, 6:30 p.m.
Game 5: Winner of Game 4 vs. Loser of Game 3, 9 p.m.