NEWBERRY – As the 2017 South Atlantic Conference Softball Championship approaches, Newberry hopes to extend one of its best campaigns in school history.
The Wolves went 14-6 in league play and finished third in the South Atlantic Conference standings, tied for its second-best regular-season result in school history after a 1999 co-championship with Wingate. This year’s finish was the team’s best since 2010.
Newberry was rewarded with a school-record five all-South Atlantic Conference selections, including a program-best three first-team honorees, in the days leading up to the 2017 edition of the conference’s postseason tournament. Newberry won three games in the 1999 and 2006 SAC Championships, its highest postseason win totals in school history, but still seeks its first-ever league tournament title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Softball Championship that comes in tow.
Despite the challenges of a double-elimination tournament, head coach Ciria Triplett is confident that her team will mentally be up to the task.
“We aren’t really worried about the early start time,” said the fifth-year head coach, whose team opens tournament play against Wingate, the tournament’s sixth seed, at 10:00 a.m. Thursday. “We actually practice at 9:00 on the weekends just in case of this exact scenario.
“We’re very much a ‘concentrate on one game at a time’ team. We don’t really look further than what’s going on right now.”
Wingate will be Newberry’s opening-round opponent, a team the Wolves have faced in both of their previous SAC Championship appearances under Triplett. Newberry swept the season series from the Bulldogs at the Smith Road Complex two weeks ago by scores of 10-5 and 4-2.
The Wolves came from behind in the first game to defeat the Bulldogs, using an inside-the-park home run from Tori Caldwell to knot the score at two and a conventional three-run blast in the fifth off the bat of Christina Linton to give the teams five runs apiece. Five runs on five hits and two Wingate errors in the sixth frame gave Newberry its final margin.
Devon Morrison, Thursday’s probable starter, flexed her muscles in the doubleheader. She earned a complete-game win in the first contest and a save in the second in support of Emily Marchbanks. A two-run homer from Haley Simonds, an RBI single from Natalie Willis, and an unearned run gave Marchbanks and Morrison all the insurance they would need in the two-run victory.
Wingate has shown flashes of offensive brilliance this season, forcing the Wolves to be ready with solid pitching and sterling defense. With the Newberry lineup clicking at the plate in recent weeks, particularly in the top half of the order, Triplett believes the Wolves have the ability to beat any team in the field.
“As long as we play our game the way that we’re capable of, we’ll be fine in this tournament,” Triplett said. “We know that anything can happen on any given day.”
The tournament format places a premium on winning. Each of the eight participating teams will play once on Thursday but could see as many as two games each on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Teams that remain in the winner’s bracket into Saturday will have a decided advantage by allowing their pitching staffs to recuperate more fully as the tournament continues.
Fortunately for Newberry, the Wolves’ pitching staff ranks among the conference’s best. Morrison earned a first team all-SAC nod and has been named AstroTurf SAC Pitcher of the Week on three occasions this season. As a staff, the Wolves have a 2.67 ERA, good for fourth in the SAC. Morrison has been particularly effective as of late, going 5-0 with two saves and a 0.78 ERA in the month of April.
Newberry has followed the formula of pitching and defense to its 31-14 record, four victories shy of tying its all-time high-water mark for wins. The team’s .976 fielding percentage is currently the best in South Atlantic Conference history, just over one ten-thousandth of a point ahead of the 2013 Lenoir-Rhyne team, and ranks sixth in Division II this season.
The Wolves have the ability to light up the scoreboard with offensive fireworks as well. Newberry’s .312 team batting average is the SAC’s third-highest. None of the team’s all-SAC selections posted a batting average below .338 and combined to place in the top 10 of the league in six offensive categories.
The Wolves will face either No. 2 seed Lenoir-Rhyne, which shared the conference title with Carson-Newman, or seventh-seeded Tusculum on Friday. The tournament championship will be decided on Sunday afternoon. All games take place at Hartsville’s Byerly Park.
For more information on the tournament and for updated brackets, visit http://thesac.com/championships/softball/index.