Conference champions have been crowned. The selections have been made. It's time for the championship hunt to begin.
Thursday kicks off the regional tournaments that will decide who moves on down the road to the Division II Softball Championships in Salem, Virginia.
Let’s take a look at some teams to watch in the South, Southeast, South Central and West regions:
No. 2-seeded Saint Leo has some tough pitching, anchored by SSC Pitcher of the Year Stephanie Adkins. The Lions are a solid hitting team as well, leading the SSC with a .321 batting average, fueled by SSC Freshman of the Year Kacie Kelly’s conference-best .445 average. Unfortunately, they get North Alabama in their first game. No one wants to face off against the defending champions in round one. Still, the Lions should be a force to be reckoned with.
West Florida claimed the No. 1 seed, but struggled in their GSC tournament. West Florida can hit (.322 team batting average) and score runs (nearly six per game), but the team that ousted them may be the team to watch.
Actually, the two teams who faced off in the GSC Championship may surprise a few people. Mississippi College is riding the momentum of winning their first GSC Tournament. Alabama-Huntsville, until it lost in the GSC, was one of the hottest teams in DII. The Chargers were amid an eight-game winning streak until the championship game loss, giving them the most wins in a stacked GSC. The Chargers do a bit of every thing well, with a balanced offensive attack (a .312 batting average and over 300 runs scored) and stellar pitching (a GSC-best 2.12 ERA). Kaitlyn Bannister continues to add to her impressive resume, leading DII in both home runs (21) and RBI (70).
This bracket is wide open. Six GSC schools make up the eight teams. Throw out records, throw out stats. There is a familiarity and rivalry in this bracket that means anything can happen.
No team is hotter than North Georgia, winners of 17 of their last 18, including the PBC Championship. The Nighthawks are about as well balanced as they come, batting .322 with 58 home runs. Stephanie Hartness has been a machine, batting .429 with 15 doubles, 12 home runs and 22 stolen bases. In the circle, freshman Kylee Smith is the ace for one of DII’s best pitching staffs, leading the PBC in nearly every category behind a 27-4 record, 0.90 ERA and 215 strikeouts.
One team to watch is Pfeiffer. The 44-win Falcons drew the seventh seed after being in the NFCA Top 10 for most of the season. Pfeiffer doesn’t wow you with any one spectacular asset, but has an incredible balance that saw it post the best ERA (1.87) and second best batting average (.313) in the Conference Carolinas.
There are six teams with more than 43 wins in this region. Armstrong State, the No. 3 seed, made it all the way to the brink of the championship series last year. The Pirates have another potent, home run-happy lineup that can get them back there.
The road to the Super Regionals should certainly be an exciting one.
Angelo State has been the unanimous No. 1 seed in DII for a few weeks running. The Rambelles are 52-5 with endless amounts of DII stars leading the way. Whether it was Brandy Marlett’s 27-4, 1.26 ERA, and 274-strikeout season, or Courtney Barnhill’s offensive explosion (she hit a team-best .389 with 12 home runs), or the play of one of the best two-way players in DII, Kenedy Urbany (18-1, 1.14 in the circle, .323, 12 doubles, 11 home runs at the plate), the Rambelles were dominant.
There’s just one problem.
West Texas A&M has been one of the best teams in DII for the past several seasons. The 2014 national champions defeated ASU with a dramatic, seventh-inning, two-run bomb from Ashley Hardin to capture their third straight LSC Tournament title. The Lady Buffs have one of the most dangerous offenses in the land, batting .382 and blasting 98 home runs, a DII-best 1.98 per game. Junior Kilee Halbert continues to be a threat in the circle.
Don’t sleep on Colorado Mesa. They have one of the most exciting offenses in DII, leading the Division with a .385 team batting average. Brooke Hodgson has become one of the best players in DII, batting .451, with 12 doubles, 19 home runs and 72 RBI. The Mavericks have four starters batting above .400. If McKenzie Surface and company can hold it together in the circle, watch out.
Humboldt State came within one game of a national championship last season. A veteran-laden roster didn’t forget that.
It was an up and down season, with some big injuries and in-season slumps, but the Jacks came alive when it mattered most. They picked up their fourth CCAA title this past weekend. It wasn’t any old conference championship. They beat Cal State San Bernardino, Cal State Monterey Bay and Chico State (twice) to do it. All three of those teams are regional bound.
The experience of their roster may give the Jacks the edge. Madison Williams is a machine in the circle and Tiffany Hollingsworth was phenomenal at the plate, both living up to their NFCA Preseason Player of the Year Watchlist billing.
There is a lot of fun to be had watching the West Region. The CCAA Pitcher of the Year Haley Gilham leads the conference's best pitching staff behind a 22-6 record and 1.12 ERA. Julia Garcia leads Cal State Monterey Bay’s offense, not simply the best in the CCAA, but one of the best in DII. Garcia batted .457 with 13 doubles and 14 home runs, pacing an Otters offense that finished sixth in DII with a .349 batting average.
Cal Baptist had an unlucky draw, getting Humboldt State in round one. The Lancers eked out the PacWest title despite dropping three of four to Dixie State, which was how the Trailblazers -- a tournament-tested team making their ninth straight appearance -- claimed the higher regional seeding. If the Lancers can avoid a first-round loss, the PacWest champions could be a sleeper as a seven seed. They have a tough sub-bracket altogether, which could test their moxie for a big run. CBU does have a DII top-15 team ERA and fielding percentage, and backed by an offense that hits .317, they could make some surprising noise in the coming weeks.