May 26, 2010

By Bo Allegrucci
Special to NCAA.com

A matriarch in women's college athletics can close her unprecedented career with one last championship run.

An undefeated team from the woods north of Atlanta can crown a season for the ages with a historic national title.

And six other heavyweights in Division II softball can stop them both this week at Heritage Park in St. Joseph, Mo. when the national championship tournament begins on Thursday.

Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks? Anyone?

Bloomsburg coach Jan Hutchinson is retiring after 33 seasons in the Huskies' dugout, all but one of which she also spent leading the Bloomsburg women's field hockey program in the fall.

Hutchinson is the winningest Division II softball coach, and the winningest field hockey coach in any division, with an NCAA-record 1,805 combined victories and hall-of-fame membership in both sports. Her Huskies have won 16 field hockey national championships, including the 2009 title earlier this school year.

A softball crown next Monday afternoon would mark the second time Hutchinson has won both national titles in the same school year (she lead Bloomsburg to the 1981 AIAW Division III field hockey crown and the 1982 AIAW softball championship).

The 2010 Huskies are 49-6 and hit .339 as a team, led by third baseman Nikki Shiko's .415 average and .482 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot. Junior pitcher Shavaun Fisher is 34-5 with a 1.00 ERA and 282 strikeouts in 259 2/3 innings pitched.

The Bloomsburg softball program is making its 28th consecutive postseason appearance and 11th trip to the championship round during Hutchinson's reign in central Pennsylvania.

Bloomsburg plays Valdosta State (47-8), which led by Alyssa Shirley (.416, 20 homers, 58 RBI) in the opening round.

It's down at the other end of the Appalachian Mountains from Bloomsburg, however, where the prohibitive favorite in this year's final eight resides.

North Georgia (50-0) was the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the country, and the Saints are enjoying their second straight 50-win season and second consecutive trip to the Division II world series.

North Georgia reached the semifinals a year ago before falling to eventual national champion Lock Haven, and the Saints have proven themselves this year with nine victories over Top 10 teams -- including a Super Regional sweep of a 50-win Lenoir-Rhyne squad.

North Georgia won the first Super Regional game 5-3 before putting up 15 runs to shut out the Bears in the second game.

With a balanced but unassuming offense, the Saints ride the right arm of junior ace Sarah Phillips, who has 43 wins and a 0.85 ERA in 280 innings pitched. Opponents are batting .167 against Phillips, and just eight of North Georgia's 50 victories this season were decided by less than three runs.

Not only has the NCAA never had an undefeated softball team in any division (circa 1982), no national champion has ever finished the year with less that two losses. North Georgia is mathematically assured of becoming the first if they survive this week's double-elimination format, and if they run the table. [ Should both of those things happen, North Georgia would break the all-time softball record for consecutive wins, which stands at 55. ] The writer found this stat on North Georgia's site and we both searched it online but could not find the team that holds the record for consecutive victories. Please confirm, and, if not, please cut.

The only other team returning to the tournament from last year's championship round is 19th-ranked Angelo State, which upset No. 5 Midwestern State in a three-game Super Regional showdown.

Angelo State's offense has a .321 team batting average that actually went down after they took two of three from Midwestern State ace Katie Peterson, the South-Central Region's Pitcher of the Year. Angelo juniors Kaycee Taylor and Alix Dean are hitting .415 and .408 respectively, and catcher Kacie Easley is batting .348 with 15 home runs and 67 RBI (both team-highs).

Angelo State plays second-seeded Metro State (51-4) in the first round. The Metropolitan State College of Denver is making its first appearance in the championship series after dropping softball in 1990 and resuming the program in 2008.

The Roadrunners' offense is hitting a tournament-best .342 as a team and averages eight runs per game. Third baseman Tara Mickelson leads Division II in home runs (23) and slugging percentage (.836), as does her Roadrunner team overall (109 HR, .630 slugging). Shortstop Amber Roundtree is batting .436 at leadoff, and Metro State has four players with double-digit homers and eight who slug at least .600.

With six of the top seven teams in the final regular season poll in the field, Angelo State would be the dark horse were it not for unranked Molloy.

In the decisive third game of Super Regional play, the Lions (43-19) upset No. 10 New Haven, 1-0, on freshman Haley Calderwood's walk-off single in the bottom of the eighth inning. As a reward for their heroics, Molloy opens the championship round Thursday at noon against top-ranked North Georgia.

Wayne State (52-11), which led by left-hander Casey Hanes (42-6, 355 strikeouts), who has a Division II-best 0.53 ERA in 314 innings pitched. Wayne State plays Hawaii-Pacific (46-8).