ATHENS — For the second time in program history, the Concord University softball team will compete in the NCAA regional tournament starting Thursday afternoon.
The Mountain Lions (38-19) captured the fifth seed in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region playoffs. Concord will play the Shepherd Rams (38-16) at 2:30 p.m. Thursday on the first day of a double-elimination tournament in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle.
Concord head coach Alisa Tasler said on Tuesday morning, “Other than Lock Haven (Pa.), we’ve played all of these teams, and have the potential to beat anybody that we see there.”
“Yes, we’re excited that we made it to regionals, but our hope at this point is to continue moving forward, and not to let this be the last weekend. We have higher hopes and expectations than just one more weekend.”
For the first part of the tourney, the region is split into two sub-regions of four teams each. Concord will begin its quest for a regional title on the West Liberty University campus. The Hilltoppers (36-17) earned the top seed in the region and got the opportunity to host.
West Liberty defeated Concord 5-3 on Sunday in the Mountain East Conference championship game. The Mountain Lions lost their first MEC tournament game last week, and had to climb back up through the loser’s bracket, playing and winning four games in 10 hours on Saturday to reach the title contest.
Tasler said, “We made it a little bit tougher on ourselves, but we made a good run on Saturday, and came back and got four wins and got into the championship game. … It shows their perseverance. It shows that when their back is against the wall, they step up and do the things that they need (to do).”
Her message to her team all day Saturday was, she said, “Get out there and show everybody who we are. Make that run, and go as hard as you can, all the way through.”
Senior Kylie Kent said, “There wasn’t really another option. I felt like we just kept playing, and knew we were going to win.”
The upcoming regional bracket offers CU the potential to “get another shot at West Lib,” Tasler said. “That’s something that we talked about after the game, and we’re really looking forward to that.”
“We’re very proud of what we’ve done this year, and we hope to continue it forward.”
Senior Lauren Blunt, who plays both catcher and first base, has plenty of motivation to keep the season rolling.
“People have underestimated us,” she said. “We were picked, like, fifth in the conference. People thought we weren’t even going to be in the conference tournament.
“So, to get there, and to overcome the adversity that we did, and to get to the championship game — and just come up a little bit short — definitely boosts our confidence going into regionals.”
Before getting another chance at West Liberty, Concord will have to take care of business against Shepherd. The Athenians have won two of three games against SU this season, including a 2-0 win last Saturday.
Blun said, “We have a little chip on our shoulder when we play Shepherd. It’s more of a rivalry thing. We get excited to beat them, because we’ve a history with them. … Anytime we get to play them, we’re excited, we’re pumped up, we’re determined.”
“Beating them this past weekend only 2-0, it wasn’t a blowout by any means, but it was a good game. We know it’s going to be a good game, and we have to come ready to play.”
Junior Jenna Witt, named last week as the MEC player of the year, said, “We know their pitching. We know their players. It’s not like we’re going in blind, so we know what we’re going to do.”
Tasler said, “The secret to beating (Shepherd) is to try to get on their pitching early. … They’re a team that’s very strong in the circle, so if they can get ahead of you, it’s easier for them to hold (the lead) than it is if we can get ahead of them early.
“We’ve shown that that is the case, and that’s something that we can do: Go out there, get on them early, and then hold them down.”
She said she will reinforce this week “that we continue to remember who we are, and play loose, and go out there and have confidence in ourselves, and confidence in the teammates … and give it all we have. Whether you win or lose at that point, you’ve done the best that you can, and you move on.
“That’s the thing that we’ve literally preached all year, and I don’t think that it should necessarily change as the stage gets a little bit bigger. … You can rely on knowing that you can go out there and beat anyone. That’s something that we have proven throughout the season (and) throughout the conference tournament.”
“You know you can win, and you go out there and prove it.”
Kent said the Concord squad is “a great group of people, a great group of players, and I trust everyone on the team. I believe we can do big things.”
Blunt said, “I think everybody … works well when they’re asked. A lot of people have come in and actually changed their position and done something they’re not used to, (but) when you’re outside looking in, you can’t even tell, because we work so well together.
“We’ve worked so hard to get where we’ve been. Everybody has a good sense of why we’re here, and what we’re supposed to do, and why we want to do it. I don’t think it’s a doubt in anybody’s mind that, if their name is called, that they’re supposed to be there.”
Asked about winding up her senior season in the NCAA regionals, Blunt said, “Honestly, it means the world to me. Playing four years here, it’s the best feeling ever to go out with a bang. We’re not going away quietly.”
“These are my best friends in the entire world. It’s such a great experience, and it means to much to have all the hard work pay off, and to see my teammates having fun around me. It’s just the best.”
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Concord fell to Shepherd, 10-2 in the NCAA Tournament opener at Hilltopper Softball Complex in the Atlantic Region 1 Bracket. The elimination game against West Liberty was pushed back due to early morning rain, but still expected to play Friday afternoon