Where else would you rather be?

Late spring in central Wisconsin, one of the finest ballparks in America, and the top Division III softball programs determining a national champion.

The sun will rise over the picturesque Carson Park in Eau Claire, Wis. on Friday and the 31st Division III Softball Championship will begin. The double-elimination tournament opens with the four first-round games on Friday and will continue until Tuesday May 21st, if necessary.

Montclair State, Tufts, and Luther return from last year’s national finals. While the nation’s top ranked team, Salisbury makes its second appearance since falling to St. Thomas (Minn.) in the 2005 national title game.

Texas-Tyler and SUNY Cortland are just a year removed from their 2011 berth, while Central (Iowa) makes its first appearance since winning the 2003 national championship. Anderson (Ind.) is the first team from the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference to win a Regional championship as they took the Angola Region as the No. 8 seed.

Half of the 2013 field is made up of programs ranked in the nation's top 10. No. 1 Salisbury (39-2), No. 3 Montclair State (41-3), No. 5 Texas-Tyler (45-4), and No. 7 Tufts (42-3) headline the field. While a pair of ranked schools from the Hawkeye State, No. 16 Central (32-8) and No. 18 Luther (32-9) each earned a berth by sweeping through Regionals. SUNY Cortland (32-15) makes its eighth appearance after falling outside the top 25 last week, while Anderson (Ind.) (32-15) makes its national finals debut by winning the HCAC Tournament and coming through the loser’s bracket to win the Angola Region.

Salisbury was unanimously selected as the top team in the nation in the most recent poll as it rides a 28-game winning streak into Eau Claire. The Seagulls have been one of the top two teams in the nation in ERA and fielding percentage for the past two years largely due to standout pitcher Rachel Johnson. Johnson holds a 26-1 record with a 0.64 ERA and 311 strikeouts -– ranking second in the nation in strikeouts/game (12.4), wins (26), hits/game (3.32) and shutouts (13). Offensively, the Seagulls have seven starters hitting more than .300 led by Michelle Gravdahl (.462) and Sarah Alpaugh (.402).

Montclair State was ranked No. 1 for most of the season, winning its first 31 contests to set the school record for any sport. The Red Hawks dropped three of their last 10 regular-season contests falling to No. 3 in the nation before sweeping through the NJAC Tournament and the Montclair Regional. The Red Hawks are the only team in the field hitting below .300, but lead the nation in ERA with one of the top hurlers in the land in Alex Hill. Hill is 37-3 on the season with a 0.58 ERA and 413 strikeouts. Her 37 victories leads the nation, while she is tied at fourth with four saves.

Texas-Tyler is one of the newest members of the NCAA, achieving full membership in 2007 and first becoming eligible for national championships in 2008. The Patriots are still seeking their first NCAA title at any sport as the softball team makes its third appearance since 2009 – taking third place in 2011. The Patriots are the top hitting team in the tournament with all nine starters hitting above .315, including Joey Cronin (.452), Lauren Robenalt (.417), and Brittney Batten (.406) all hitting more than .400, and five different players with at least five home runs. The Patriots have a potent one-two pitching combo with Kelsie Batten and Heather Abshire each winning more than 19 games with ERAs of 1.27 and 1.63, respectively.

Tufts has won 15 consecutive games en route to its second consecutive appearance in the national finals. Allyson Fourneir was named to the all-tournament team last year in Salem as she leads the nation in multiple categories in 2013. Fourneir is 21-1 on the season and has led the nation in ERA and strikeouts per seven innings for the past two years. She holds a 0.39 ERA and 13.2 strikeouts per seven innings in 2013. The Jumbos have three players hitting above .400 including Jo Clair at .415, who is also the school’s all-time leader with 33 home runs. Sara Hedtler (.447) and Emily Beinecke (.424) are the top two hitters of a Jumbos lineup that is hitting .352 on the season.

Central is one of the more prominent programs from coast-to-coast with 12 appearances, four national championships and a pair of runner-up finishes. The Dutch is the only team in the field with a national championship and have the second most NCAA tournament appearances (25) and tournament wins (88) in Div. III history. Head coach George Wares leads Division III in victories with 973.

After losing four of their first five, the Dutch went 31-4 to close the season.

“This team has come a long way,” Wares continued, “Every team has to go through something. They all have various type of adversity. But this team has shown an ability to handle a lot.”

The Dutch are averaging swiping 2.43 bases per game, while slugging .440 – both top ten in the nation. Mallory Schulenberg and Kelsey Stender have kept games close, each picking up over 10 victories and ERAs under 1.30.

As the Dutch have been absent the last decade, IIAC rival school Luther is making their fourth consecutive trip to the national finals. The Norse are the third-best fielding team in the nation with a .978 fielding percentage and are led offensively by Miranda McCoy and Shari Huber. Becca Girvan was named Whitewater Regional MVP going 4-0 with four complete games, a 2.50 ERA and 24 strikeouts. Luther has a combined 34 games of national tournament experience with nearly 60 percent of their roster experiencing some action in a previous national finals game -– exceeding every team in the field.

Following an 8-10 start, SUNY Cortland finished 24-5 as they enter the national finals. The Red Dragons have won at least 30 games in each of the past 12 seasons, making their sixth trip to the national finals in the past decade. Junior pitcher Amber Corrigan was named MVP at the SUNYAC Tournament and Most Outstanding Player at the Ithaca Regional, she is 8-1 with a 1.09 ERA in the nine postseason games. Lucia Meola and Diane Cork lead the offense with Meola hitting .438 with a .536 on-base-percentage and Cork hitting .371, while knocking out nine home runs with 34 RBIs.

“I was 0-29 coming in and I’ve been trying to reach this point in my 30-year career and trying to get the team here,” Anderson head coach Tony Holloway said after the Ravens won the Angola Regional as the first team from the Heartland Conference to reach the national finals. Regional MVP Yardley Collett hit .384 on the season with team-highs five home runs and 41 RBIs. Amy Wuestefeld was named HCAC Tournament MVP as she led the Heartland with a .467 batting average. Sami Frazier leads the staff with a 12-3 mark and a 0.94 ERA. The Ravens advanced by beating No. 2 ranked Trine twice on their home turf before coming knocking off Allegheny in consecutive games to win the Region.

Salisbury and Cortland will play the opening game at noon, followed by Luther and Anderson at 2:30. Tufts and Texas-Tyler will play game three at 5:00 p.m. and the first day will conclude with Central and Montclair State at 7:30 p.m.

Carson Park is located on an island in the heart of Eau Claire surrounded by the Half Moon River. This marks the sixth time UW-Eau Claire has hosted the event with the last time in 2010.