The days where the Howard Payne Lady Jackets were looking to simply win an American Southwest Conference Softball Championship Tournament game are behind them. Head coach Jose Mata’s troops now expect to compete for the ASC title and an NCAA regional tournament berth this weekend at Trinity View Park in Irving.

“That was the monkey on our backs, even in the previous years I was here before,” said Mata of the Lady Jackets’ nine-game tournament losing streak, which ended with a 6-2 elimination game win over East Texas Baptist last season. “This year I feel like we’re a little more relaxed at this point. But we don’t want to be too relaxed or too nonchalant going in, and that’s something that’s going to be in the back of my mind. We’re a higher seed playing a lower seed this year, but the lower seed is a very good team so it doesn’t mean anything.”

The Lady Jackets are in the midst of another historic season as they snapped the 2007 team’s record for single-season victories. HPU also is on the verge of its first 30-win season. In order to reach that milestone, however, the Lady Jackets will have to get past the team that ended their 2008 campaign - the No. 14 UT-Tyler Lady Patriots.

Howard Payne (29-9), the ASC West runners-up, will tangle with East No. 3 seed UT-Tyler (31-7) at 6 p.m. in first-round tournament action.

The Lady Jackets were twice defeated by UT-Tyler in last season’s tournament. After falling 7-0 in the opener, Howard Payne allowed seven runs in the top of the seventh inning of a 9-5 season-ending loss to the Lady Patriots.

“They sent us home last year, but we had a great game with them,” Mata said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us and we’re going to rise to the occasion.”

Thursday’s other first-round game pits East No. 2 seed and 11th-ranked Louisiana College (32-6) against West No. 3 seed Schreiner (26-13).

First-round byes belong to East champion and second-ranked East Texas Baptist (35-5) - which split its two games against the Lady Jackets this season - along with West champion Hardin-Simmons (30-10) - which took three of four from HPU.

The tournament should be one of the most competitive in the country as five of the six teams in the field are ranked in the top eight of their respective region. East Texas Baptist (No. 1), UT-Tyler (No. 3), Hardin-Simmons (No. 7) and Howard Payne (No. 8) are among the West Region elite, while Louisiana College is ranked third in the Atlantic Region.

“This year I think the tournament can go any direction,” Mata said. “Anybody who goes in there and plays good can come out on top. There’s no dominant team, and that’s an advantage for all of us.”

As balanced as the tournament appears to be, pulling out close wins could be a key to survival for the Lady Jackets. HPU has had lots of recent practice in that area as five of its last six games have been decided by one run, but the Lady Jackets are just 2-3 in those contests.

“We’ve played a lot of close games the last two weeks,” Mata said. “They’ve been low scoring games so we have to make sure we can score and keep everybody else off the board.”

While capturing their first ASC championship would ensure the continuation of the Lady Jackets’ season, Mata feels if Howard Payne finishes in the top three it should receive a regional invitation.

“Our goal this year is to try and make the regional tournament,” Mata said. “Looking at the regional rankings, we’re probably going to have to be one of the last three teams standing. We’d love to be in the championship game, but we feel like if we’re at least one of the last three teams we have a great shot to get into the regional tournament. We’re at the No. 8 spot, and they take the top six teams in the regionals.”

In order to achieve their goal, Mata is counting on the HPU defense - whose .955 fielding percentage is best among ASC West tournament qualifiers - to continue its solid play, which the coach considers the key to the Lady Jackets’ success this season.

“Defense is our bread and butter,” Mata said. “This is one of the best defensive teams I’ve been around. I’m a defensive coach in the first place and I don’t want to give up runs. We make very few mistakes and that’s one of our biggest strengths going into the tournament.”

The Lady Jackets also boast the best team ERA of any squad in the West at 2.75. Seniors Jenna Middleton (16-4, 1.96, 89 strikeouts) and Kate McLaughlin (4-3, 3.78, 33 strikeouts) and sophomore Melissa Hall (9-1, 3.03, 35 strikeouts) comprise the staff, and Mata plans to use all three pitchers to keep the opposition guessing.

“There’s a lot of good hitting teams out there, but our pitching has been strong from the get go,” Mata said. “We’re going to see a lot better hitting teams, so I’m probably going to have to use a mixture. Jenna will carry us and start, but I may only use her three or four innings and bring in Kate or Melissa to keep everybody off balance. I want to use a mixture of the three, not have just one carry us through.”

Mata used the same philosophy against UT-Tyler last year, and it worked for most of HPU’s season finale. But the Lady Patriots may be even more dangerous offensively this season. Led by Whitney Wyly (.438, 14 HR, 65 RBIs), the Lady Patriots are tops in the ASC in batting average (.380), on-base percentage (.453), runs (325), hits (395), total bases (619) and home runs (47).

Much like the defense, Howard Payne’s offense has also improved considerably from last season. The Lady Jackets are batting .309 as a team with a .401 on-base percentage, 233 runs scored and a dozen home runs.

McLaughlin has been the offensive sparkplug as she leads the Lady Jackets in batting average (.454), on-base percentage (.545), hits (54) and RBIs (44). Four more Lady Jackets are batting over .300 - Rebecca McDaniel (.390, 5 HRs, 37 RBIs), Lauren Bollich (.373, HR, 14 RBIs, 49 runs, 35 steals), Kellye Wheeler (.317, 16 RBIs) and Ashley Silva (.315, 2 HRs, 33 RBIs).

“Offensively, we’re a lot more aggressive than we were last year and we can do more things with the bunt and the steal, a little bit of short game,” Mata said. “We’ve got some girls that can hit and move them around.”

One offensive aspect that Mata would like to see improve this weekend is consistency. The Lady Jackets have been known to score runs in bunches this season, but the coach would prefer to see the production spread out over an entire game.

“We’ll have one or two innings where we put it all together and get a few runs,” Mata said. “We have to do a better job of putting it all together throughout the whole ball game. We’re outhitting teams, but we’re sporadic. We’re not getting hits all the time.”

UT-Tyler brings a 2.30 team ERA into the ASC tournament, led by pitchers Kelsey Ainsworth (14-4, 1.90, 44 strikeouts) and Stacy Shepard (6-0, 1.09, 40 strikeouts).

Six games, including four elimination contests, will be held Friday, while the tournament will crown its champion at 2 p.m. Saturday. Louisiana College is the reigning ASC champion after UT-Tyler entered last year’s tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation.