Last Modified: Wednesday, May 09, 2012 7:33 PMAfter a late-season slump, coach Mike Smith said he believes the McNeese State softball team is returning to form as it heads into the Southland Conference tournament in San Antonio.
The Cowgirls (32-19) were in first place until a mid-April stretch that saw them drop four straight to Texas State and Stephen F. Austin before finishing 4-2 in their final three series. They enter the double-elimination tournament as the No. 3 seed against No. 6 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (17-21, 11-9) at 12:30 p.m. today with the goal of getting back to the top before the weekend is through.
Smith said he needed to lighten things up in practice to get the team out of its lull.
“I was really kind of down with the team. We had to find somehow, someway to get things back,” Smith said. “… One practice we played backwards kickball and just went out and had a good time. The coaches were playing. We just lightened the mood up. It got us back on track.
“Sometimes you get so focused during the year, especially when you’re losing, that you focus on all the things you’re doing wrong and not the things you’re doing right. We just had to go back to when we were kids, playing the game and having fun.”
A pitching change is part of the reason for McNeese’s optimism.
With junior Meagan Bond enduring some struggles that coincided with the Cowgirls’ slump, Smith turned to freshman Bianca Lilly as his No. 2 starter behind Tiffany Denham.
Lilly has stepped up to the occasion. She enters the tournament with a 3-1 record and 1.52 ERA in 46 innings.
“Meagan struggled for two or three starts,” Smith said. “But as a coaching staff we couldn’t have Tiffany bailing her out every time as we went down the stretch. So we went to Bianca and said ‘You’re the freshest pitcher we have out there. We need you to step up and help this ballclub out.’
“She said, ‘Coach, just give me the ball.’”
With the possibility of five games in three days, Smith said the team may also have to count on Bond to play a key role.
“She’s been working on some stuff in the bullpen,” Smith said. “We’re going to need her. She’s a competitor with a bulldog attitude.”
McNeese was eliminated from the conference tourney by the Islanders last season, but won both meetings this year in Corpus Christi.
The winner is scheduled to face No. 2 seed Sam Houston State at 5:30 p.m., though rain is forecast for later in the day. The loser will play the loser of the Texas-San Antonio/Central Arkansas matchup at 11 a.m. Friday.
• NOTES: Denham and fellow seniors Claire Terracina and Dani Price are attempting to become the first players in school history to win two SLC tournament titles. They clinched an NCAA tournament bid as sophomores in 2010. Terracina is third in the country with seven triples this season, and leads the nation in triples per game.