PROVO — The BYU softball team (35-20) is back in familiar territory, a remarkable consistency built by coach Gordon Eakin during his 15 years heading the program.
Eakin's team underwent its final practice at home Monday before leaving for Eugene, Oregon, where it will compete in the NCAA Tournament for the 14th year in a row. The Cougars punched their ticket to the NCAA regional round after winning a 10th straight conference tournament, finishing the season with 18 wins over their final 20 games played.
Although the Cougars have made it look easy, as they have most seasons prior, Eakin is quick to point out that appearances can be deceiving.
Faced this season with having to replace star pitcher McKenna Bull, the Cougars were dealt another big blow when their most experienced returning pitcher, Arissa Paulson, was diagnosed with an injury on March 4 that proved season-ending.
"A lot of people wrote us off at that point because pitching is such a big part of this game," Eakin said. "But we knew what our other pitchers were capable of and what our entire team was capable of. Players knew then they'd have to step up — all the players, not just the pitchers."
The Cougars' record was just 8-11 at the time of Paulson's injury due to a brutal early schedule that saw Eakin's team play some of the nation's best programs. They took some lumps as a result, although senior captains, such as Alexa Strid, believe it helped galvanize the team heading into West Coast Conference play.
"I think we have more fight as a team than last year," Strid said. "We have so much talent on this team, and we've just fought a lot more adversity this year — not just with injuries, but having to battle back more than we did throughout last season. I think it's really helped us come together as a team."
Last season saw the Cougars primed to advance to the super regionals before being ousted by Utah during the regional round. That loss still stings for the returning players and has placed a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
"We've heard a lot about how we can't get it done because we don't have McKenna," said senior Briielle Breland. "But I think we've really come together, and we want it so bad. I believe there's more cohesiveness with this team, and it's been real fun playing this year."
Eakin mostly agrees with his senior players' assessment.
"We've overcome adversity in a lot of different degrees," he said. "We've had injuries, slumps and then had to overcome getting it handed to us by some top teams early in the year. Our team chemistry is really good this year, as a result, and that's a big thing to have. I attribute it to our team leaders mostly, but also the younger players for being more than willing to follow their lead."
Leading the offensive output for the Cougars have been Strid, junior Libby Sugg, sophomore Rylee Jensen (WCC player of the year) and freshman Bridget Fleener (WCC freshman of the year), all of whom hit above .400 during WCC play. Leading from the pitching circle have been sophomore Kerisa Viramontes (WCC pitcher of the year) and freshman Autumn Moffat, who collectively have pitched for a lower ERA through WCC play than the staff did last year, which was led by Bull.
The goal now is to advance past the regional round and become one of the 16 teams that advance to the super regionals. Doing so won't be easy, having to play in a regional hosted by Pac-12 champion Oregon, a program tabbed as the No. 1 seed among the 64 teams in the tournament.
"We want it so bad, and we feel we have the talent and chemistry to do it this time," Strid said. "We feel that all the adversity we've overcome has prepared us really well for regionals."
The Eugene regional will take place Thursday through Saturday and includes host team No. 1 Oregon (47-7, 21-3), Albany (30-14, 13-4) and Drake (43-10, 24-1) in addition to BYU. A four-team, double-elimination tournament will take place at each of the 16 regional sites, with each winning team advancing to the super regionals.
vs. Drake (43-10)
Thursday, 4 p.m. MDT
Jane Sanders Stadium,
Live streaming: WatchESPN