Warren Arceneaux column: Changes bring new scenery for Cowgirls

Published 12:28 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The NCAA tournament has a new look this year, with the selection committee moving away from the practice of grouping schools at regions based on geography more than fairness.

McNeese was one of the winners from the selection show, with the Cowgirls earning a third seed and a trip to the Chicago area for the regional round, where the Cowgirls will play at Northwestern along with Notre Dame and Oakland.

The change of scenery is a welcome development, one that initially looked like it would take place because LSU would not be a regional host this year. That led to assumptions that the Cowgirls would be headed to one of the closest regions at Oklahoma State, Alabama, Arkansas or Texas. Most of the people gathered to watch the selection show at Beauxdines were caught off guard when the Cowgirls were announced as the final school at the Evanston region, figuring there was no way they’d be sent so far from home.

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Under the old system, McNeese’s seven previous tournament appearances were limited to three sites — UL-Lafayette, LSU and Texas A&M.

Each time, the Cowgirls faced opponents they had already seen in the regular season. The strategy made sense in the early stages of the sport, but as it has grown over the past two decades, has become boring and trite. Only six of the 19 NCAA tournament games in McNeese history have come against opponents not from Louisiana or Texas.

The new style of seeding, if it holds, will help add more parity to the sport, as lower-seeded teams get both fairer pairings and a chance to face opponents who are not familiar with them, which could lead to more upsets.

It also rewards players with a chance to see places and teams they haven’t seen before.

“It ‘s exciting, we had no idea where we were going and Chicago is a place most of us have never been,” outfielder Kaylee Lopez said. “It’s an opportunity for us to go to a new place and show them what we’ve got.”

The Cowgirls have a lot going for them entering the tournament, having won 9 of their last 10 games. The format of the Southland Conference tournament also provided a boost to McNesse, which earned a first round bye as the top seed of the seven-member tournament. That allowed the Cowgirls to avoid a game against the conference’s worst team. Such games hurt McNeese’s Ratings Percentage Index score, win or lose.

The way the bracket played out, with a game against fourth seed Northwestern State and two against conference runner-up Southeastern Louisiana, benefited the Cowgirls, who won all three games and jumped 13 spots in the RPI standings. The jump meant the Cowgirls went from being at risk of getting a four-seed to being in the middle of the pack of third seeds.

The Cowgirls finished the season 10-10 in games against opponents ranked 26th-100 in the RPI. Four of the wins came against Southeastern, with the other six all in nonconference games.

Among the biggest wins were a 13-inning marathon against UL–Lafayette, a 4-3 extra inning game against Alabama-Birmingham and a 1-0 win over North Texas. The latter two came in the opening week of the season and were part of a 13-14 start to the season.

Aggressive scheduling by head coach James Landreneau paid off in the long run. Those early season quality wins gave the Cowgirls a solid resume at the end of the season.

Recent tournament history has been good — McNeese has won a game at a regional in each of its four appearances since 2016 and are 2-1 in opening round games when it has avoided the fourth seed, beating Arizona State as the second seed in 2016 and Baylor as the third seed in 2018.

The program has made all the right moves over the past few years to be in position to make more history.

Landreneau speaks openly about wanting to be the first Southland school to win a regional. That’s a tall order this week with a pair of nationally ranked teams in the region, but the committee may have done the Cowgirls a favor by placing them with unfamiliar opponents.

The Cowgirls’ hyper-aggressive baserunning and ability to rotate three pitchers could cause problems for teams who haven’t played McNeese before. The Cowgirls have nearly as many steals (138) as the other three teams combined (163).

Warren Arceneaux covers high school athletics. Email him at warren.arceneaux@americanpress.com