For the second consecutive season the Winona State softball team will host an NCAA Regional.
The Warriors watched the NCAA selection show with anticipation along with doughnuts and coffee on Monday morning before the selection committee rewarded their hard work that included a 31-game win streak and an NSIC regular season title with a No. 2 seed in the Central Regional.
They will now play the seventh-seed St. Cloud State on Thursday at 1 p.m.
Entering the NSIC tournament, coach Greg Jones knew that if the Warriors won the title they would be a lock. If Augustana won the tournament odds are they would earn the right to host. But not many expected the Warriors to have to play in the loser’s bracket, which was what happened after a loss to MSU-Mankato last Friday. It meant that they would have to win four straight games including two in the championship game.
It turned out to be a blessing for Winona State.
The Warriors went on to defeat St. Cloud State, get revenge on Mankato, before Liz Pautz delivered “one of the best pitching performances in program” according to Jones tossing a six-hit shutout to defeat Augustana 1-0. And although the Warriors dropped the next game — their fourth game played in a row on that day — it was that 1-0 win that gave WSU a 3-1 edge in the season series. It proved to be the deciding factor when it was all said and done.
“The wildcard in there was that we beat them once,” Jones said. “Once we split with each other it became pretty tough to probably split us. I could have seen it going either way, but I was pretty happy to see us on the two line.”
Augustana is the third-seed and if it all goes according to plan they will face off on Friday.
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“They have all the story lines with revenge and all those type of things,” Jones said. “Trying to dethrone us and whatever, but I just don’t want my kids to get caught up in the outside noise and just worry about playing softball.”
It will be the second consecutive season that the Warriors will host the Regional, but last season it did not go as expected for the top-seeded Warriors. They struggled to get the bats going scoring just one run against Emporia State and Arkansas Tech to see their season come to an earlier than expected end.
“As a coach it’s always out there,” Jones said when asked if the Warriors thought about last season. “As a coach you are always trying to live in the past of your program as well as the future. In the past we have had a lot of success getting to the postseason, a lot of success winning conference tournaments, we have been to Super Regionals, and we were fortunate enough to get to the World Series. That’s something you hope for for this group. Your hoping they don’t press this year going into the postseason because last year they didn’t have a good postseason.”
Last year was a great team, but as Jones likes to say, “your strengths get you in the postseason and your weakness knocks you out.” For last year’s team it was the offense that worried Jones and it was the silenced bats that let the Warriors down. But this year’s team is different. The offense is there.
“We have the same amount of pitching and defense, but now we have more offense,” Jones said. “It’s a pitching and a defense-dominated world in the postseason, but you still have to be able to produce and score. This year I’m just hopeful with a little more offense that we have the ability to make it to sustain a little more length in the postseason.”
The Warriors have experienced success in the postseason in the past highlighted by a World Series appearance in 2009. But this specific group has not. Will they be pressing because of that fact or will they come out with a chip on their shoulder? Only time will tell.
“Our program historically has done well in the postseason,” Jones said. “But for this group, last year is their only memory. We only have two new kids on the team, so the history of this group is last year. I think it has to be on their minds, but it’s that balancing act as a coach that you try and eliminate that aspect as a coach and make them realize it’s just another game, but you also want them to show a little urgency. That there is unfinished business. But we just have to focus on ourselves and play the game.”