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Despite a 40-win season and a Southland Conference regular-season championship, McNeese State was excluded from the NCAA tournament after not winning the SLC tournament. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

Despite a 40-win season and a Southland Conference regular-season championship, McNeese State was excluded from the NCAA tournament after not winning the SLC tournament. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

Tournament stumble costly for Cowgirls

Last Modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 4:57 PM

By Albert Burford / American Press

Everything seems to go right for McNeese State softball until the Southland Conference tournament.

For the second consecutive year, the Cowgirls rode into the competition with a regular-season league title, and this season, they won that title by a 412-game margin.

Last year things soured quickly for the Cowgirls as they lost out in two games. This year the ordeal was a bit messier.

The trouble began for McNeese on Friday, when the tournament was rained out, missing an entire day of play. That put McNeese in a potentially awkward situation. If the Cowgirls were to win their scheduled game against Northwestern State on Saturday morning, they would have sailed into the championship game Sunday. Instead, they lost to the Demons then had to defeat Stephen F. Austin to earn a chance to play Northwestern State again on Sunday. The Cowgirls would have to beat the Demons twice on Sunday if they were to win the tournament.

Because of McNeese’s position on the bubble of NCAA regionals, pending the outcome of the conference tournament, they played at 8 a.m. in order to have a better chance to receive an at-large bid than if they were to finish in the afternoon, when the NCAA committee would be at the tail end of its selection process.

“I agreed to it. I had to for that reason,” said McNeese head coach Mike Smith. “Did I like the eight o’clock game? No. Did I expect us to be there? No. The decision was made after the first day of the tournament and I expected to win that game against Northwestern State and be playing in the championship and let the other teams worry about it. It just didn’t happen that way.”

The way it happened, Northwestern State dealt McNeese an 11-0, five-inning loss in the 8 a.m. Sunday game.

Despite the loss, Smith said he felt as if McNeese had a good shot at becoming the first Southland team to clinch an at-large bid to NCAA regionals since 1997. The only things that worried the third-year Cowgirls coach were other mid-major conference tournament upsets that took up at-large bids and the SLC regular-season losses McNeese suffered.

“The conference’s RPI was so bad and the rest of the teams in the conference’s RPI was so bad that I was afraid that would affect us, too,” Smith said.

The Southland was No. 20 in conference Rating Percentage Index and McNeese finished the season at No. 46. The next-closest SLC team was No. 133 Northwestern State. Those numbers put McNeese in a no-win situation. When McNeese won Southland games, it didn’t improve its RPI. When the Cowgirls lost Southland games, it hurt their RPI.

That meant McNeese would have to rely on its out-of-conference schedule. That was something for which Smith was prepared.

“I felt like we did everything we could except win the conference championship,” Smith said. “From an at-large standpoint, I felt like we did everything we were capable of doing except for winning a few games in conference that we should’ve won, but I felt like our nonconference strength of schedule was strong enough against big teams that made the tournament and were in the top tier of the tournament. I talked with some coaches from different programs that are actually in the tournament, and they felt like we deserved to get in, too.”

McNeese scored road wins against ranked teams Alabama, Texas A&M and Alabama-Birmingham.

But McNeese failed to win the conference tournament and wasn’t selected for an at-large bid. Smith and the Cowgirls watched the selection show together.

“I wanted to have my team together regardless of whether we got in or didn’t,” he said. “I wanted us to experience that together. It was probably one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced as a coach in 16 years having my team sitting in there and being high in anticipation and being so disappointed by the end of the show.”

That left the Cowgirls in another long offseason. Smith said he was proud of what his team accomplished and said he believed they should be rewarded.

But McNeese’s season ended in the same place as it did the prior year. The Cowgirls’ first 40-win season in program history and a regular season in which they didn’t lose a Southland series ended in disappointment.

“Sometimes in life things aren’t going to make sense, they’re hard to swallow and they just plain hurt,” Smith said. “This program is going to rebound. We’re going to use this to fuel the fire once again.”

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