The Howard Payne Lady Jackets head into their third straight American Southwest Conference Softball Championship Tournament — and fifth in program history — still in search of their first postseason victory.
Once again, however, the ASC tournament is stacked as four of the six teams in the field were either ranked or received votes in the latest National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25.
The Lady Jackets (25-15), the third seed from the ASC West Division, will open tournament play at 6 p.m. at Southwest Park in Irving against one of those nationally-ranked foes — the UT-Tyler Lady Patriots. UT-Tyler (35-5), the ASC East No. 2 seed, is ranked No. 2 by the NFCA. The Lady Patriots are making their ASC tournament debut after serving their provisional period as an NCAA Division III program.
“We’ve been close, but we’ve never been able to get that brass ring,” said first-year Lady Jackets head coach Jose Mata, who is in his second stint at Howard Payne and coached the Lady Jackets in their 2001 and 2002 ASC tournament appearances. “We just don’t want to be there physically, we want to win a couple of games. We want to win the tournament, but we know we have to take it one game at a time.”
Though UT-Tyler boasts a decidedly better overall record, when it comes to momentum heading into the postseason, the Lady Jackets clearly have the advantage.
Of the Lady Patriots’ five losses, three have come in their last four games, including a pair to ASC East champion Louisiana College (36-4) — the No. 5 team in the nation — last weekend.
Howard Payne, meanwhile, has won 16 of its last 20 games, including a 12-game win streak that vaulted the Lady Jackets from the bottom of the ASC West standings into postseason contention. Howard Payne won its regular season finale, 7-4, at Concordia on Friday to build some positive energy for this week’s tournament preparations.
“The way we came back after losing Game 3 of that series and won Game 4 and played well, that got us back to where we needed to be,” Mata said. “In years past, we played Hardin-Simmons the last weekend and they owned us and that got us down going into the tournament. Last week we were relaxed and though we didn’t play as good as we’d like, we played well.”
To improve upon their 0-8 all-time record in ASC tournament play, the Lady Jackets will need one of their best pitching performances of the season. UT-Tyler leads the ASC in most offensive categories, including batting average (.370), slugging percentage (.586), on-base percentage (.451), runs (339), hits (414), RBIs (322), doubles (93), home runs (45) and total bases (656).
Among the most dangerous weapons in the UT-Tyler lineup are Lindsey Peters (.432, 41 RBIs, 47 runs), Megan Richardson (.381, 13 HRs, 56 RBIs), Julie Smith (.387, 44 runs), Sara DeStefano (.370, 8 HRs, 37 RBIs), Brittanni Hanna (.340, 32 RBIs) and Kate Bell (.308, 6 HRs, 31 RBIs).
The Lady Jackets counter with pitchers Jenna Middleton, Kate McLaughlin and Melissa Hall, who all have seen considerable action in ASC play. While Howard Payne ranks seventh in the conference in team ERA at 3.60, the Lady Jackets’ 205 strikeouts as a staff are second in the league.
Middleton has seen the majority of the action, working 122 innings with a 10-7 record, 2.81 ERA and 100 strikeouts. McLaughlin has posted a 10-5 mark with a 4.75 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 70.2 innings, while Hall is 5-2 with a 2.83 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 64.1 innings.
Offensively, the Lady Jackets rank among the middle of the pack in most statistics in the 14-team American Southwest Conference. Howard Payne’s 12 triples are second and its 190 RBIs were sixth. The Lady Jackets finished seventh in batting average (.310), on-base percentage (.375), runs (218), hits (329), home runs (16) and total bases (450).
McLaughlin has been a spark for the HPU offense all season with a team-high .385 average, 45 hits, 32 runs 11 doubles, two homers and 23 RBIs. Ashley Silva is the most consistent power threat with seven home runs, 36 RBIs and a .342 batting average.
Other offensive standouts for Howard Payne include Cory Lee (.356, three home runs, three triples, 20 RBIs), Lauren Bollich (.331, 40 hits, 31 runs, 19 steals), Kristi Pinkerton (.325, 21 RBIs), Brooke Schneider (.293, 16 RBIs, 22 runs), Lauren Vesely (.280, 29 RBIs) and Courtni Buster (.231, 19 runs, 11 steals).
Not only does UT-Tyler possess the best offense in the league, the Lady Patriot pitching staff ranks second in the conference statistically.
The Lady Patriots’ team ERA of 1.59 trails only the miniscule 0.93 ERA of Louisiana College, and the .219 batting average of their opponents is also second best in the ASC.
Kelsey Harrington is the ace of the UT-Tyler staff with a 14-2 record, 1.78 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 102.1 innings. Also at the Lady Patriots disposal are Stacy Shepherd (5-1, 0.86 ERA, 52 strikeouts in 56.2 innings), Kelsey Ainsworth (7-2, 1.65 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 46.2 innings) and Loren Parks (8-0, 1.55 ERA, 20 strikeouts in 40.2 innings).
UT-Tyler already owns a win over the Lady Jackets this season, picking up a 6-1 victory at the ASC Crossover in Farmers Branch on March 8. Harrington limited Howard Payne to three hits — by Bollich, Lee and Justine Ferrell-Raborn — while the Lady Patriots chalked up all their runs in the first three innings. Peters led the charge with two hits, three RBIs and three runs scored. At the time, UT-Tyler improved to 15-0 with the victory, while Howard Payne slipped to 5-6.
“It’s like playing the Yankees or David vs. Goliath,” Mata said. “They’re a great team and we’re going to have to play a great defensive game. I think we’ll be able to push across one or two runs, but we’re going to have to limit their runs.”
Against teams in the tournament, the Lady Jackets own a 3-8 record. HPU has defeated West No. 2 seed Concordia (26-10) twice in four attempts and East No. 3 seed East Texas Baptist (25-13) in their only meeting. Concordia and ETBU will meet in the only other tournament game tonight.
The rest of tournament field includes the aforementioned Louisiana College Lady Wildcats and the ASC West champion Lady Crusaders of Mary Hardin-Baylor (31-7), who both have first-round byes.
With a win today, the Lady Jackets would face UMHB, which swept four games from Howard Payne to open ASC West play, at 11 a.m. Friday. A loss would put Howard Payne in an elimination game at 2 p.m. Friday.