I'm so sick of the word 'regional.' I want to get to Super Regionals so bad. —BYU pitcher McKenna Bull
PROVO — BYU softball players were downright giddy after defeating Utah 4-3 back on March 22. They'll now have a chance to repeat the feat on a much bigger stage, as part of an NCAA regional hosted by the Utes, which gets underway this Thursday.
The 64-team tournament includes 16 four-team regionals that will battle for a spot in the 16-team Super Regional the following weekend. The Cougars (44-11) will begin regional play on Thursday with a game against Mississippi State (36-20), before taking on Fordham (45-15) and Utah (33-14).
The Cougars are no strangers to NCAA regional play, yet have not advanced to a Super Regional since 2010.
"I'm so sick of the word 'regional.' I want to get to Super Regionals so bad," said BYU star pitcher McKenna Bull earlier in the month. "I think this team has the potential to do it — definitely and we want it bad."
Bull has been the Cougars' starting pitcher since 2014 and is currently pitching her — finishing the regular season with a 29-5 record, a 1.23 ERA while striking out 226 batters over 199.2 innings pitched.
But it's not all about Bull, as the team has risen to become what BYU coach Gordon Eakin considers the best he's coached over his 14 years within the program.
"With any program, it starts with recruiting the right talent and character...and I believe we've done that well," Eakin said. "It's started back to the senior class we have now, and I think our program has reached a maturity level where we can recruit a higher level of player."
Bull is one of those seniors, along with Lauren Bell, McKenzie St. Clair and Ashley Thompson. Other big contributors have been Lexi Tarrow, who leads the team in batting average (.377), Caitlyn Alldredge, who leads in slugging percentage (.702) and Libby Sugg, who leads the team in RBI (52) and home runs (12.)
"Everything has been coming together and it's just really clicked," said Thompson. "We definitely had the feeling this team could be special, and we've really gotten better and better each year since I was a freshman."
The Cougars enjoyed a 22-game winning streak late in the year, spanning from March 31 clear to May 13. It did so after taking on an extremely difficult preseason schedule, which included games against then no. 1 Oklahoma, no. 3 Auburn, no. 9 Arizona and no. 11 Georgia.
"As our program has improved we've tried to improve our schedule to where we're consistently playing against the top programs in the country," Eakin said.
"Those games gave us some good confidence and let us know we could compete with the best teams in the country," added Thompson.
Although the Cougars have made a habit of being invited to the tournament year in and year out, Eakin stressed the accomplishment should not be overlooked.
"It's not an easy thing," Eakin said. "It's never easy and it takes a lot of hard work, and the accomplishment shouldn't be overlooked...then to advance to the Super Regionals, and be one of those 16 top teams — that's a huge accomplishment, but I know our girls feel that's the next step and feel confident they can do it."
First pitch for the Cougars' opening game against Mississippi State will be Thursday at 4 p.m. MDT and will be streamed live on ESPN3.