softball-d2 flag

Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | August 22, 2018

Let's break down the final 8 teams in the 2018 DII Softball Championship

Eight teams survived the grind of the regional and Super Regional tournaments. The DII Softball Championship finals field is set and ready to commence at the James I. Moyer Sports Complex in Salem, Va. on Thursday, May 24.

Interactive bracket | Printable bracket | Regional brackets

So, who made it through? Let’s take a look at the last eight teams remaining in the hunt for the 2018 national championship.

Team to beat:

No. 1 seed: North Georgia

Record: 61-2 | Conference: Peach Belt | Region: Southeast

The Nighthawks are just three years removed from their last national championship. North Georgia has plenty of bats to worry about in Sydney Sprague (.330, 15 home runs, 46 RBI) and Shelby Hammontree (.371, 14 home runs, 57 RBI). But the story behind the Nighthawks' 61-win season is pitching.

Both Kylee Smith and Amber Johns are amongst the 10 finalists for the NFCA DII Player of the Year. Smith exploded onto the DII scene as a freshman last year, earning All-American honors with a 31-6 record and 1.04 ERA. This season, she's bested those numbers, currently sitting at 35-1 with a 0.83 ERA and a DII-best 320 strikeouts. Johns broke out in her sophomore campaign as well, going a perfect 18-0 with a 0.98 ERA and 112 strikeouts. It shouldn't be a surprise the North Georiga leads DII in ERA and shutouts. Two hot pitchers will be a lot for teams to handle in Salem.

MORE: DII softball's new home run queen talks walks, dingers and life in the potent Southern Arkansas lineup

Team to watch:

No. 7 seed: Southern Arkansas

Record: 57-9 | Conference: Great American | Region: Central

A 57-win seventh seed certainly puts itself on everyone's radar. Whereas North Georgia will blow you away in the circle, the Muleriders can blow you up in the batter's box. 

Southern Arkansas averaged nearly two home runs per game behind a DII-best 110 home runs. Brooke Goad leads the charge, becoming both the career and single-season home run record holder with 32 blasts. She has five teammates -- Faith Otts, Rachel Miller, Monica Islava, Marina Duran, and Sarah Pitre -- that slugged double-digit home runs. That doesn't even include Jill Roye who reached double-digit home runs last year and currently sits at nine. Plain and simple, if an opposing pitcher makes a mistake to a Mulerider, it's likely leaving the yard.

But Southern Arkansas has a dangerous weapon in the circle in Victoria Taylor. She went 31-0 this season with a 1.19 ERA and 224 strikeouts. The Muleriders have weapons all over the field, and were just in the finals in Denver two years ago. That experience against finals newcomer St. Anselm may loom large in the first round.

SLEEPER ALERT:

No. 8 seed: Southern Indiana

Record: 36-23 | Conference: Great Lakes Valley | Region: Midwest

Perhaps no team had to work harder to get to Salem than Southern Indiana. The Screaming Eagles stumbled a bit early on, putting up a 10-loss March, but that doesn't matter. They are now 9-1 in the postseason picking up the GLVC and Midwest Region titles along the way. One of two teams that returns to Salem from last year's final eight, the Screaming Eagles are stacked with returners full of postseason experience and it is showing. Two-way threat Jennifer Leonhardt continues to perform well at the plate (.297, six doubles, four triples, and 25 RBI) and in the circle where she is the team's ace (21-12, 2.44 ERA and 237 strikeouts). With eight of their top nine hitters getting experience in Salem last year, the Screaming Eagles could surprise.

The rest of the field:

Angelo State

Seed: No. 4 | Record: 52-7 | Conference: Lone Star | Region: South Central

Of course, at this point in the season, every team is worth watching. Obviously, the reigning national runners-up and winners of the 2004 national championship Angelo State are a huge threat to the title. The Rambelles put up a 52-7 record this season and is the other team back in Salem from last year. Here’s a team that puts up runs with the best in the nation (their 418 are 11th-best) while limiting runs amongst the best in the nation (their 1.95 ERA 17th-best). With Karina Rocha, Taegan Kirk, and Courtney Barnhill leading the power surge and Brandy Marlett and Morgan Hill a dynamic duo in the circle, this team is as dangerous as any in Salem. The experience there and sting of last season's finale make Angelo State as much a favorite as any remaining team.

RELATED: Texas schools are dominating the DII softball home run race

St. Anselm

Seed: No. 2 | Record: 41-10-1 | Conference: Northeast-10 | Region: East

How about St. Anselm? Morgan Perry brought her A-game against LIU Post in the East Region final, tossing a three-hit complete game shutout. In improving to 23-4 on the season, Perry pitched the Hawks to their first-ever regional title and trip to the DII national finals. Don't expect a power surge from the Hawks, they have the least amount of home runs of any team in Salem. But Amanda Bickford leads a charge of hitters that get on base, hitting .410 with a .431 on base percentage this season.

Chico State

Seed: No. 3 | Record: 55-4 | Conference: California Collegiate Athletic Association | Region: West

Chico State is celebrating its 50th anniversary in style. A 55-win season including going a perfect 23-0 at home certainly gave Wildcat fans plenty to get excited about. A thrilling Super Regional against Dixie State has the Wildcats in Salem in the DII Softball Championship finals for just the second time in program history. While Chico State has plenty of offense, especially in sluggers Karli Skowrup and Bailey Akins, the key to the Wildcats’ success has been pitching. Haley Gilham (31-3, 1.19 ERA and 185 strikeouts) leads a pitching staff that posted the eighth-best ERA and third-most shutouts in DII softball.

Saint Leo

Seed: No. 6 | Record: 37-16 | Conference: Sunshine State Region: South

The Lions lost one of their program’s best pitchers, and one of the most dominant in DII the past few seasons in Stephanie Adkins. Saint Leo responded by making it all the way to the finals as the sixth seed. Saint Leo won't overwhelm you in any one category (the Lions have as many home runs as a team as North Georgia's top home run hitter Sprague has this season), but they figure out how to win. They will be a tough out.

DI Super Regional bracket | DIII final 8

West Chester

Seed: No. 5 | Record: 45-13 | Conference: Pennsylvania State Athletic | Region: Atlantic

West Chester returns to Salem for the second time in program history, and it was in dominant fashion. The Golden Rams put up 45 wins this season and swept through the Atlantic Region for the first time in program history. Amanda Houck is the pitcher to watch after her 31-5 season, posting a 1.05 ERA with 164 strikeouts en route to PSAC Eastern Division Pitcher of the Year honors. At the plate, Bri Garber is dangerous, hitting a PSAC-best .447 for the PSAC's top-hitting team. She's equally dangerous once on base, going a perfect 3-for-3 in stolen bases and scoring a PSAC-best 60 runs. West Chester will have its hands full with Angelo State in the opening round, but a win will send a statement to everyone in Salem.