Southern Arkansas University is amid its single greatest softball season in the program’s history. After a weekend split against Great American Conference foe Arkansas Tech, the SAU Muleriders are starting down their path to May softball.
The Muleriders are not a program that has been traditionally familiar with championships or the NCAA postseason. Since Kevin Blaskowski -- who recently won his 750th career game now with West Texas A&M -- started up the program in 1999, SAU has seen a mere one trip to NCAA Regional play. This season, they looked poised to return to the postseason.
“From day one when we got back for the spring season, I told them that my expectations for this team are the highest of any team I have ever had,” SAU head coach Jason Anderson said. “I can look at our roster and I knew what kind of talent we had. We set many team goals, we want to be one of the top teams in the conference and go on from there to NCAA Regionals. We’ve been able to do that so far.”
Anderson came to the Muleriders last season, on the heels of their first ever NCAA playoff appearance. A year full of injuries, new faces and adjustments saw Anderson’s Muleriders fall short of a second consecutive trip to the postseason. That didn’t change their coach's faith in that he made the right decision in coming to SAU.
“I felt like it was a great opportunity,” Anderson said of signing on with SAU. “The community and the school were really behind the softball program. I was coaching at [Northwestern Oklahoma State] the year before when SAU won the conference tournament, so I knew what kind of players they had. It all came together.”
Entering this past weekend, when SAU was sitting at a team-best start of 31-4, the Muleriders made program history by earning their first NFCA national ranking. They came in at No. 23.
“They’re excited,” Anderson said of his team. “I think it is a good compliment and a testament to the hard work that the girls have put in. We have beat some really good teams this year and our record shows that. From a players standpoint it’s rewarding, as coaches we have to sit back and say we got some tough games to play and we want to be around at the end of this thing.”
The national ranking led to yet another first for both the program and the GAC. This past weekend, SAU squared off against Arkansas Tech, the No. 5 team in the country. It was the first time that two GAC teams were ranked in the Top 25 and played against each other. SAU came out of the weekend with a split, proving that they belonged amongst the best in the nation.
“I thought we pitched well enough to win better than a split, but they did the same thing,” Anderson said of the weekend’s heavyweight bout. “We won two tight games, and lost two tight games which is what you would expect in a Top 25 matchup. I believe we knew that going into it that we had a lineup and team that would stay on the field with them, and I think we showed that. It motivates us, we know what we got to work on, that’s going to be a team we’re going to run into, so we have to figure out a way to win more of those games than to lose them.”
Starting with that Arkansas Tech series, SAU faces the toughest swing of their schedule thus far in 2016. Tuesday they played two against Arkansas-Monticello -- a double-header that saw them lose the first game in dramatic fashion in the ninth only to comeback and win the same way in the bottom of the ninth in the nightcap -- and they head to Oklahoma for a four-game series with Southeastern Oklahoma State. A ten-game swing against teams that are in the top four of the GAC.
“We’re going to have to come everyday,” Anderson said. “We can’t take any inning off. We knew coming into the schedule it was going to be very backloaded. I think it’s a good thing, because we’re needing to be playing the kind of ball at the end of the season that’s going to help us on a postseason run. We’re going to have to be motivated day in and day out. I think the girls are ready for it. These girls are excited, those are the games you want to be in.”
SAU is doing it behind a very balanced attack. Their offense has been led by senior Ashton Atwell — who was on the NFCA DII Player of the Year National Watch List — and junior Maddie Dow who is already the SAU career leader in home runs.
“Top to bottom our offense has performed very well,” Anderson said. “Ashton had a little hand injury but she has been right there in the middle of our lineup all year. Maddie and Brooke have been huge. Brooke started off in our leadoff spot and we dropped her down to third to get more RBI, with her and Maddie in that three-four, it’s tough to pitch to.”
The comeback story of Brook Goad has been exciting to watch as well. The redshirt sophomore has suffered not one, but two ACL injuries. She is currently second in the nation in home runs and has helped SAU sit atop the GAC in both batting average and home runs.
“She’s a hard worker, she got after it and rehabbed and got it corrected," Anderson said of Goad's injuries. "She’s out there hammering the ball again and hitting it really hard. I think she was off the radar a little bit, but we knew what we had in her as coaches, her numbers are not surprising to us at all.”
The pitching has been led by two fresh faces. Kimmy Beasley and Kaylee Garner have combined to lead the GAC in earned run average, as well as both hits and walks allowed.
“Any time they’re in the circle, we have a chance to win, there’s no doubt,” Anderson said of his one-two punch. “They’re both very experienced pitchers, they both pitched at the Division I level. They’re two different types of pitchers, Kimmy is more of a hard up ball pitcher and Kaylee is more of a movement pitcher, but they both get it done.”
SAU has a big weekend ahead that will shine more light on what this team can achieve. One thing is for certain. This magical season that has consisted of several firsts for the program and has a few more on the horizon, does not want to end on the last game of the regular season on April 23rd.
“It’s the goal that we set out at the start of the season,” Anderson said. “We want to go deep in the postseason. That will continue to keep this program on the map. It’s something we set out to do this year, we’re going to keep chasing it and we’re going to take it as far as we can.”
Adelphi tops in lacrosse
Adelphi women’s lacrosse had yet another big week in their quest for their third consecutive national championship. The Panthers reeled off two huge wins, outscoring their opponents 38-5 to get to 10-0 on the season.
The Panthers are now 53-1 over the past two and a half seasons of their reign as defending champs. The offense is led by junior Jacqueline Jahelka who leads the Northeast-10 with 57 total points on the season behind 42 goals (second in the NE-10). Senior Rachel O’Brien is the NE-10 leader in assists at 28, and rounds out the top five in total scoring with 47 points.
The defense is headed by goalkeeper Taylor Hayes. The senior captured her fourth NE-10 Goalkeeper of the Week Award this past week. Should Hayes go undefeated again this week, she will become Adelphi’s all-time career win leader.
The Panthers are no strangers to “three-peats”. They were national champions from 2009 to 2011 before LIU Post won back-to-back titles.