After a six-year absence, the Howard Payne Lady Jackets are making their return to the American Southwest Conference softball championship tournament, which will be hosted by top seed East Texas Baptist Thursday through Saturday.
It took head coach Jose Mata revamping almost the entire roster prior to the 2019 campaign to put an end to Howard Payne's postseason drought.
“It's been like a gorilla on our back because we went through some hard years,” Mata said. “When you're recruiting and you're bringing kids in you think that's going to be the year with a couple tweaks here and a couple tweaks there. You hope that gets it, but it hasn't done well for us. So this year we cleaned off the whole slate and started over. We kept five kids off last year's team and brought 27 kids in to start with and this is the outcome. The biggest difference was going out and getting quality kids with great attitudes and work ethics.”
The No. 6 seed Lady Jackets (17-21, 13-14) play their first game at 10 a.m. Thursday in Marshall against No. 7 UT-Dallas (16-20, 12-14). With a win, Howard Payne would move on to face No. 3 seed LeTourneau (23-15, 18-12) for the right to advance to double elimination action Friday. A loss Thursday — which is a single elimination format — would end the Lady Jackets' season.
“We're excited about our first two potential matchups,” Mata said. “UTD was a huge turning point for us this year. They swept us, but in all three of those games we played well. We had some mental breakdowns and went through some growing pains that series and the girls know it. We should have won the series but we didn't hold up to our expectations.
“With LeTourneau waiting, we won one of the games against them and one we lost was close and we should have won. Offensively and defensively I think we're there, if the pitching can hold up.”
Pitching is the wild card for Howard Payne , which carries a 5.08 team ERA into the weekend. The Lady Jackets have used Audrey Simpson (8-4, 3.71 ERA, 66 innings), Tia Campos (5-11, 5.08 ERA, 95 innings), Gabrielle Roque (1-2, 5.59 ERA, 36 innings) and Hannah Stuart (3-4, 6.39 ERA, 49 innings) in a variety of roles at various times throughout the season.
“We could start one girl today and she may not last one inning, and on other day she may pitch six,” Mata said. “We just hope we hit the right one. That's been our most difficult decisions, figuring out which pitchers are going to pull through for us.”
Offensively, Howard Payne is averaging 4.4 runs per game and batting .325 as a team with 30 home runs. Standouts include Kayla Hill (.396, 7 HRs, 27 RBI), Aurora Luera (.382, 1 HR, 8 RBI, five triples, 10 steals), Alexis Sullivan (.374, 5 Hrs, 32 RBI, 14 doubles), Haley Slater (.349, 5 HRs, 20 RBI), Tonya Thompson (.346, 9 RBIs, 17 sacrifices), Kayla Anderson (.287, 15 RBI), Emily Martinez (.255, 4 HRs, 23 RBI) and Ragen Noriega (.238, 9 RBI).
“We're well balanced,” Mata said. “We've got a little bit of speed, a short game, a long game. When you look at us statistically we have a lot of pop, but we leave too many runners stranded and that's been our Achilles' heel throughout the season. When we actually get going, we can put runs up real quick.”
As for their chances of coming home as American Southwest Conference champions, Mata said, “It's anybody game's. We haven't seen this kind of parity in our conference since my first stint here back in the early 2000s before UT-Tyler and East Texas Baptist started dominating. If you look at ETBU lately, they've dropped some games (three of their last seven), but they have great pitching. I still think anybody can go in there and win, you just don't know. If we get through day one we have a legitimate shot, so that's our goal. Then we'll see where the chips fall.”
There will be an ASC tournament send-off for the Lady Jackets at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the parking lot across from the Packer Administration Building.
(at East Texas Baptist)
Thursday, May 2 (single elimination)
Game 1: #6 Howard Payne (17-21) vs. #7 UT Dallas (16-20), 10 a.m.
Game 2: #5 Sul Ross State (20-19) vs. #8 Louisiana College (15-25), 1 p.m.
Game 3: #3 LeTourneau (23-15) vs. Winner Game 1, 4 p.m.
Game 4: #4 Hardin-Simmons (19-21) vs. Winner Game 2 , 7 p.m.
Friday, May 3 (double elimination)
Game 5: #2 Mary Hardin-Baylor (26-14) vs. Winner Game 3, 10 a.m.
Game 6: #1 East Texas Baptist (36-4) vs. Winner Game 4, 1 p.m.
Game 7: Loser Game 5 vs. Loser Game 6 (elimination), 4 p.m.
Game 8: Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 6, 7 p.m.
Saturday, May 4
Game 9: Winner Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8 (elimination), 11 a.m.
Game 10: Championship: Game 10: Winner Game vs. Winner Game 9, 2 p.m.
Game 11: If needed: Game 10 winner vs. Game 10 loser, 7 p.m.