Minutewomen trying on tournament glass slipper
The excitement is palpable at UMass, where the home team has a golden opportunity to emerge from a field that includes Albany, Lehigh and No. 13 overall seed Texas A&M to advance to next weekend's super regional.
AMHERST, Mass -- An unblemished postseason bracket is a blank canvas of opportunity.
As the NCAA softball tournament gets underway, and the road to Oklahoma City is still tantalizingly uncluttered by wrecked dreams and broken aspirations; 64 teams are hoping to build toward a championship, one win at a time.
Instead of sitting around and waiting for fate to intervene on their behalf, the Minutewomen (37-14) are building their own carriage to take Cinderella to the Sooner State for the first time since 1998.
Just weeks ago, the softball field officially known as the UMass Softball Complex (and unofficially, at least until the administration wises up, dubbed "Sortino Field" after longtime coach Elaine Sortino) was a picture of New England softball tranquility. A small set of bleachers, which held about 500 fans, offered the primary seating behind home plate. Any overflow fans casually stood or lounged along the baselines and behind the outfield fence.
But on Thursday, as the hours ticked down to the first pitch of Friday's regional opener against Albany, the sounds of infield chatter and aluminum pings were replaced by hammers, drills and the grunts of heavy lifting.
Teams were practicing on the pristine field, but the major activity involved the construction of a massive grandstand where the small set of bleachers formerly stood, which will seat about 1,700. Towering above the backstop that formerly defined the skyline, the new stands are equal parts functional necessity for playing host to the regional and symbolic memorial to a team that is ready for the big time.
"The university has really stepped up in a big way to make this event first class, and we're thankful for that," Sortino said as she struggled to make herself heard above the cacophony of sound around her. "And our kids have really worked hard on the field to draw a No. 2 seed [in the regional]. It's just a really exciting time for UMass softball."
Playing host to a regional has energized a softball community that rarely has a chance to see postseason games in person. The excitement is palpable at UMass, where the home team has a golden opportunity to emerge from a field that includes Albany, Lehigh and No. 13 overall seed Texas A&M (33-17) to advance to next weekend's super regional.
Success is nothing new for a program that hasn't missed the NCAA Tournament since 1994 and coached by Sortino, who is one of only 11 men and women to reach 900 wins. But advancing in the postseason has grown increasingly difficult since the program's last trip to the Women's College World Series in 1998.
"I think it's an incredibly hard task to get to the College World Series," Sortino said. "The last time we went, there was no such thing as a strong ACC. The Big Ten perennially would send a Michigan. And there was no SEC. So you would see Pac-10, Pac-10, Pac-10 and maybe a couple of people would sneak their way in."
But after adding two superstar freshmen to a team loaded with senior leaders, the coach had a hunch this year's team might be able to write a different story for itself on the field.
"I knew our team was special after the part of the season when we do our conditioning and our individual work," Sortino said. "As a matter of fact, I knew it was special before Christmas, and I went out and bought this book [she's carrying a slightly worn notebook that looks as if it has endured a few long bus trips and dusty dugouts].
"Normally, I just have a black book, which is any old book. So I went over to Staples and I found one in cardinal and put our logo on it. And I told the kids the first day of practice in January, 'I know this is a special season, I know you're a special team, and so I got a special book to log every day of the journey.'"
Texas A&M (33-17) stumbled to a 4-6 finish in the regular season and Big 12 conference tournament, but it's a team with two wins against Texas and a win against Arizona to its credit, as well as a wealth of experience from last season's run to the regional final.
Make no mistake, the Aggies remain the favorites in Amherst.
And they aren't stressed about the slow finish or getting shipped to New England.
"I honestly think it's very simple," coach Jo Evans said of the decision to send the Aggies away from home. "It came down to travel; it came down to money. And unfortunately in life, that's kind of how things work. & I really do think it came down to where can we drive teams? And looking at the bracket, we could probably drive one team to A&M. Here you get three schools and fly us."
And perhaps getting away from the pressure could actually help the team relax and focus.
"They're loose, but they also have a little bit of edge," Evans said of her players. "And hey, we're the team that's supposed to win this thing, and everyone is going to be gunning for us."
Coming off blockbuster freshman seasons a year ago, Amanda Scarborough and Megan Gibson remain the heart and soul of both Texas A&M's pitching staff and batting order. The two combined for 15 home runs and 54 RBI at the plate and 31 wins in the circle.
With two outstanding pitchers -- a luxury the other teams in Amherst don't have -- and a balanced lineup that includes seven players who started at least 49 of the team's 50 games, the top-seeded Aggies represent a Texas-sized obstacle for UMass (37-14), Lehigh (41-12) and Albany (36-11-1).
"It's really great to see what we thought was going to happen at the very beginning is happening now, and it's coming together," said senior catcher KJ Kelley, one of four players on the roster who came from the West Coast to play college ball in New England. (Kelley hails from Rainier, Ore.)
At first glance, much of the evidence that supports the Minutewomen's case as one of the tournament's top sleepers comes from the numbers compiled by freshmen Brandice Balschmiter and Whitney Mollica.
Balschmiter gives the team a legitimate workhorse ace, having compiled a 28-7 record with a 0.71 ERA and 266 strikeouts in 247.1 innings. And even in her first season, Mollica is one of the nation's top hitters, having posted a .417 average with 11 home runs and an Atlantic-10 record 59 RBI.
But Balschmiter and Mollica are just the most visible parts of a deep team that has the role players to compete with anyone and the leadership to keep the young stars focused.
"You've just got to talk to her, just like you would talk to any of the young girls," Kelley said of helping Balschmiter deal with adjusting to college softball. "They don't exactly know everything that's going to happen, especially with the postseason, because it's new to them.
"You just keep reminding them to stay in their shoes, because they pop out here and there, and you've got to stay in control."
And while Balschmiter's numbers suggest otherwise, the freshman is quick to admit that her first season has been a constant learning experience.
"Things started clicking in the Atlantic-10 tournament, especially the last couple of games," Balschmiter said of allowing just eight hits and three earned runs in 19 innings as the Minutewomen won the conference title. "Coach and I have been talking that I need to slow myself down, and that my head gets going a mile a minute. And I've finally learned how to do that."
Considering the freshman nearly beat Cal in just the fifth game of the season (allowing six hits and no earned runs in 7.1 innings), the idea that she is just now feeling comfortable with her craft is a frightening proposition for opponents.
Of course, support and leadership in the form of runs and steady fielding has been an equally important contribution from the veterans.
Kelley, who set a school record for home runs last season and is hitting .348 with 39 RBI this season, provides steady protection for Mollica from the cleanup spot while also guiding the defense from behind the plate.
Leadoff hitter Amanda Morin, whom the coach describes as "one of the best first basemen I've ever coached," adds more than just a nifty glove, compiling a .487 on-base percentage at the top of the order (OBP is an important stat for the Minutewomen, as three of the top four hitters in the lineup have more walks than strikeouts).
Even senior pitcher Jenna Busa, who has logged just 78.2 innings in the circle with Balschmiter around, has provided a big assist. Where some players might have pouted about the lost playing time, Busa accepted her role as mentor.
"I know Brandice has been out on the mound a lot, but Jenna is our senior and I know she talks to Brandice a lot about the mental game," Kelley said. "And I know a lot of pitching is the mental game. It's not all physical and what you can do with power. So Jenna has played a key role in Brandice's performances, whether she's out there or not."
The new stands in Amherst are the product of a few days of intense labor, but the team on the field this weekend will be the product of years of work.
The new accoutrements should hold up nicely for the three days of action, but the team has its collective eye on making a more permanent imprint on this season's bracket.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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