Warren Arceneaux column: Chance for Cowgirls to prove they belong

Published 11:41 am Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Warren Arceneaux

This week’s NCAA Tournament gives the Cowgirls softball team another chance to compete against some of the elite teams in the country. McNeese State will travel to Baton Rouge as the regional’s fourth seed behind LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette and George Washington.

LSU (32-19) is ranked 16h in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll, with the Ragin’ Cajuns (44-10) right behind them at No. 17. George Washington is 37-9 and won four consecutive elimination games to win the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.

A daunting nonconference schedule led to a 3-12 start for the Cowgirls. Each of the 12 losses were to teams that were nationally ranked at the time they played. One of those teams, Central Florida, is not currently ranked. However, the Golden Knights are receiving votes and won the American Athletic Conference Tournament.

McNeese held its won in those games — twice losing by one run to ULL, which was ranked in the top 10 for both of those games, a 1-0, extra-inning game at Florida, and the Cowgirl Classic in which McNeese lost a trio of close games to then-No. 20 Arkansas and No. 18 Baylor. Arkansas is ranked fifth in the NFCA coaches poll and is No. 6 national seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Since the slow start, the Cowgirls have gone 31-12. They won six of the their last seven Southland Conference series and won four consecutive games to claim the SLC Tournament championship. Three of the wins came against the top two seeds, No. 1 Stephen F. Austin and No. 2 Central Arkansas. The other came against Sam Houston State, which swept the Cowgirls in a weekend series on March 19-20.

Recent history is on the Cowgirls’side. McNeese has won a game in each of its last three NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2019 the Cowgirls didn’t make the tournament but won three games at the National Invitational Softball Championship before being eliminated by Texas-Arlington, the eventual tournament champion.

The high-water marks for the Cowgirls in postseason play were opening-round wins over Arizona State at the 2016 Baton Rouge Regional, and No. 18 Baylor at the 2018 College Station Regional. The Cowgirls have gone two-and-out in the NCAAs once in six appearances. That came in 2010, with shutout losses to No. 17 LSU and No. 20 Texas A&M.

That was the first NCAA trip in five years for the Cowgirls. Since then the program has grown. It has not had a losing season since 2008 and has finished .500 or better in conference play each year since 2005.

This year’s team has kept those streaks going but now has a chance to achieve more. A win — or wins — this weekend will validate the late surge as bona fide growth and improvement.

The Cowgirls’ strengths — pitching depth and defense — are well suited to tournament play. Starter Whitney Tate has allowed six earned runs over her last 12 appearances. Southpaw starter Jenna Edwards is 9-2 and has allowed more than two earned runs twice all season. Freshman Ashley Vallejo is a power pitcher who can get strikeouts in big spots. The duo combined for all four wins in the Southland Tournament. McNeese allowed a total of seven runs while sweeping four games in Hammond.

The Cowgirls lead the nation in double plays turned and are strong on the left side of the infield with a couple of excellent defenders in shortstop Cori McCrary and third baseman Haylee Brinlee. Outfielders Alayis Seneca, Toni Perrin and Jil Poullard all possess excellent speed. Poullard has flashed a cannon of a throwing arm from right field with six outfield assists.

Those qualities could keep McNeese in games regardless of the competition and will again be needed if the Cowgirls are to improve their fortunes against the country’s best.

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The McNeese State softball team finds itself in the NCAA Tournament again, this time with more ambition than just being happy to be there.

 

Rick Hickman