SALEM, Va. -- When the 2014 NCAA Division III softball tournament got under way right there on Texas-Tyler’s home field, those Patriot players who were still on campus chose in general to take a pass in attending.
“I didn’t watch any,” outfielder Christa Hartnett said. “It would have been a little tough to just go.”
Texas-Tyler was certainly worthy of a nationals appearance in 2014. The team had 37-3 record entering postseason, but the Patriots’ hopes were dashed when nearby rival East Texas Baptist eliminated them in the regionals. Instead, it was East Texas that played in that tournament.This year, the Patriots got the best of the Tigers in the end, although it was never easy.
During the two-teams’ regular-season conference three-game series, ETBU won the first game. Texas-Tyler came back to win the next two. In the American Southwest Conference tournament, the Patriots were sent to the losers’ bracket after falling to the Tigers the first time they played. Eventually Texas-Tyler worked its way back to ETBU and won back-to-back games to claim the conference title.
It was the same scenario a week later in the NCAA regional, when ETBU again won the first time they played. Texas-Tyler beat Texas Lutheran later that day to earn the right to face its rival again the next day. Two wins later, it was on to the super regional for the Patriots.
And they haven’t lost since.
“It was a great feeling,” Hartnett said. “Especially coming back and how we did it. We always lost the first game to them, and then came back and double-dipped them. It was sweet that we never gave up. … We kept our energy high and won the next two games.”
The Patriots went on to sweep Emory in the super regional by scores of 4-0 and 12-2. And in their first two games of the 2015 championship tournament at the James I. Moyer Complex, Texas-Tyler went 2-0, edging Kean 1-0 on Thursday then topping Linfield 2-1 on Friday. Those two nail-biters earned the Patriots a game-free Saturday.
Meanwhile, Salisbury, the Patriots’ Sunday opponent and the only team in the way of Texas-Tyler getting to the championship best-of-three series, had to get on the field on Saturday and win to advance.
“We traveled to get here -- which is something we don’t normally do in the regular season,” Texas-Tyler coach Mike Reed said. “For them to have a day to relax and sleep in was big for them. … Anytime you can rest arms and catchers’ legs -- just to be fresh is important.”
And in a way, Texas-Tyler has East Texas Baptist to thank for all this.
“If you go back to our rivalry with East Texas Baptist, every game with them was close,” first baseman Jackie Mendez said. “We’re used to those pressure situations, pressure at-bats and we’ve got to make the big plays on defense.”
The Texas-Tyler softball program is one of the newer ones in Division III. Reed, who previously attended then coached at East Texas Baptist, was hired to start the program back in 2005. After three years of provisional status (meaning the Patriots were not eligible for postseason play), the team has qualified for the NCAA tournament eight conseuctive times. This year is Texas-Tyler’s fourth appearance in the final round.
And if the Patriots can beat Salisbury once in what could potentially be two games, they will be assured of their best nationals finish ever. Pitcher Kelsie Batten has allowed just seven hits and one earned run in the two games her team has already won. Reed said he would like to see his team hit the ball a little better, but considering the quality of pitching, all games from here on out will likely be close and low-scoring.
“Right now, we need to stay focused, keep our energy up, and focus on what we do best,” Mendez said. “This team performs best when we’re relaxed. And we have great personalities. So when we’re meshing, clicking, laughing and having fun, we’re at our best.”