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Shannon Scovel | May 8, 2019

These NCAA softball teams are looking to prove themselves in conference tournaments

This will get you excited for this year's WCWS

As college softball teams around the country look to their conference championships to make a statement, these are the five squads that have a chance to prove themselves in these upcoming tournaments.

North Carolina

The Tar Heels enter the ACC tournament as a team that has received votes in the NFCA poll. To call them an underdog would be a stretch, but it's not a stretch to say they're a team in search of some validation. North Carolina enters the ACC bracket as a No. 4 seed and will face No. 5 Louisville, a team the Heels beat 2-1 in a series at the end of April, in the first round. With a 33-17 record, North Carolina needs a conference tournament win to secure its spot in the 2019 NCAA softball tournament, though the Heels face still competition from nationally ranked Florida State and No. 1 seed Virginia Tech. The Seminoles fell twice to North Carolina earlier in the season, losses that ultimately cost Florida State the top seed in the conference tournament. If Carolina can play like they did during the regular season against Florida State, they could surprise some fans. 

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Senior Leah Murray leads the Heels in runs with 36, and she'll be looking to extend her final season as long as possible during this conference tournament. Joining her on top of the stat sheet is Kiani Ramsey, a senior who leads the Tar Heels with 59 hits. Junior Brittany Pickett rounds out a veteran squad of leaders as the team's starting pitcher, and with 178 strikeouts, she's also one of the conference's leading pitchers as well. The Tar Heels did not make the preseason Top 25 after a 30-26 season in 2018 and an early ACC tournament loss to Pitt, but the team has already accumulated more wins than last season, and they're primed for an ACC run. The battle against Louisville is a great test for the Heels to start, and it's a winnable game if the team finds its rhythm. 

A recent loss to North Carolina Central does not help the momentum of the season for the Tar Heels, but if they can channel the energy they had in beating Louisville last weekend by a combined 17-13 margin, then they should have a shot to make a tournament run. The winner of the Carolina-Louisville game plays the winner of Virginia Tech vs. the winner of the North Carolina State-Syracuse play-in game. The Heels have not played North Carolina State or Syracuse this season, but they did pick up two wins against Virginia Tech in April 

Auburn 

This has not been Auburn's year, but the Tigers aren't giving up. Auburn suffered three losses against Arkansas just one week after losing a series to Florida and two weeks after dropping a 3-0 series to Kentucky. Mickey Dean's squad is tough, and wins against Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina prove that Auburn is capable of being a competitive team in the postseason, but first, they have to get there.

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The journey for Auburn through the SEC tournament starts with No. 7-seeded Missouri, a team the Tigers have not yet faced this year. Auburn is 10-14 against conference competition, and if the Tigers win that first game against Missouri, they'll face No. 2-seeded Tennessee. Advancing to the second round of the tournament would be a huge advantage for Auburn, not just because it sets up the team for a longer run but because Tennessee is a beatable team for Auburn. The Tigers won their series against the Vols in April and could be a Cinderella story in the SEC if they pull off a win against Missouri and Tennessee. Senior Casey McCrackin leads her team in batting average, runs and hits, and she'll be the veteran to watch when the Tigers take the field again on Thursday. 

Texas A&M 

The SEC is stacked top to bottom, and unfortunately for the Aggies, they've ended up more near the bottom than the top. Texas A&M enters the SEC tournament seeded No. 13 and will need to beat No. 12 Mississippi State in a play-in game for the chance to advance. Much like Auburn, Texas A&M is coming into this tournament with a mission in mind: prove itself to be more successful than its No. 13 seed suggests. The Aggies hold a 28-24 record, but their most recent win against No. 11 Tennessee showed signs of greatness. Junior Payton McBride finished off the game with a two-out, two-run homer in the 10th inning to end the marathon game, and if she and her team can find that magic again, they could push past the Bulldogs in the first round of the conference tournament and keep their season alive. 

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Texas A&M has been in this situation before, facing a tough battle with Mississippi State in the SEC tournament, but the last time they prepped for this game, the team had a stronger resume and a more successful record. The win wasn't as crucial, but even then, the team fell short. Mississippi State beat Texas A&M 2-0 in last year's SEC tournament opener, but the Aggies still earned a spot in the regional tournament. Texas A&M won the College Station regional at home before ultimately losing the series to Florida in the Super Regional. This year, the win is necessary. The team needs to prove itself to the conference and the country in this first game, and if the Aggies can do so, they'll face Ole Miss in the second round, another team they've yet to play so far this season. They've already beaten LSU, Alabama and Georgia in tight conference battles, but this next game will be a test to see if the Aggies can compete at the top-level when the pressure is on. 

Florida Gulf Coast

Florida Gulf Coast could use a strong conference performance as it battles for an NCAA tournament bid, and a few wins in the Atlantic Sun bracket would allow the team to end the season on a positive note. None of the teams in this conference have earned a spot in the Top 25 in the most recent rankings, but none of that matters if the Eagles can take down everyone else in their bracket.

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The Eagles suffered two losses to Lipscomb, the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Sun in the final series of the season. That came about a month after No. 2 seed Liberty swept Florida Gulf Coast in Fort Myers. Now, however, the Eagles will have to get through No. 6 seed North Florida of advancing to earn redemption against the Liberty Flames in the next round. Florida Gulf Coast has not played North Florida yet this year, but the Ospreys sit under .500 on the year and should be a beatable opponent for the No. 3-seeded Eagles. Florida Gulf Coast enters the tournament 28-20 overall and 13-7 in the conference, with five of those conference losses coming against the top-two seeded teams. The Eagles' biggest win came against No. 12 Minnesota. If Florida Gulf Coast can continue to play at the elite level it showed during that win back in March, this is a team that could beat North Florida, challenge Liberty and fight for a deep run in the Atlantic Sun. 

Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Badgers picked up votes in the latest NFCA poll, but will look to add a couple of Big Ten tournament wins as they fight for a spot in the NCAA tournament. Minnesota paces the conference at No. 12 nationally with Northwestern and Michigan also earning spots in the Top 25 at No. 18 and No. 21 respectively. The Wolverines hold the top spot in the tournament, though Northwestern is seeded No. 2 and Minnesota sits at No. 3. As the No. 5 seed, the Badgers have a reasonable path to the semifinals. 

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No. 12 Iowa is first up. The Badgers will need to beat the Hawkeyes in a first-round game to earn the right to play No. 4 seed Ohio State in the second round. Wisconsin has not played Ohio State yet this year, but a win in the second round would pit the Badgers against the winner of top-seeded Michigan vs. either No. 8 seed Nebraska or No. 9 seed Illinois. Wisconsin swept Iowa back in early April, but has gone just above .500 against the rest of its Big Ten competition. In its most recent series, Wisconsin took a W over the Cornhuskers 2-1, but Nebraska kept all three games within two runs. Junior Kayla Konwent leads the Badgers in the series win with three hits and an RBI in four at-bats during the final regular season game, and she also leads her team for the season in batting average, hits, doubles, triples, RBIs and home runs. 

Wisconsin, Florida Gulf Coast, Texas A&M, Auburn and North Carolina could all compete for conference tournament titles. And while the path is certainly smoother for some than others, these teams will no doubt play with a chip on their shoulder and a desire to prove they belong in the NCAA tournament bracket. 

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