St. Francis softball advances to conference championship

St. Francis baserunner Cheyenne McKee slides home safely on an RBI double by Halle Marion in the sixth inning of the Red Flash's 8-1 victory over Wagner in the second round of the Northeast Conference Softball Championships in Loretto on Thursday, May 12, 2017.

LORETTO – It’s on very rare occasions that players may have more experience on a topic than a coach. Mark down the St. Francis seniors as one of those uncommon instances.

When the five seniors and a redshirt junior take to the diamond on Friday against 15th-seeded Michigan, they will be playing in their third-consecutive NCAA Tournament, a feat that first-year coach Jess O’Donnell hasn’t experienced in her playing or coaching days up to this point.

“We might have been here before, but it’s still the same game; the game itself doesn’t change,” senior Mikayla Bower said. “Once we cross those white lines it’s like any other game.”

“(This team) has taught me a lot; not so much softball wise, but the way they work,” O’Donnell said. “Knowing what this senior class has been through, they come in every single day and I try to make them better every single day.”

St. Francis entered the season projected to finish third in the Northeast Conference, a prediction that held true when the Red Flash entered this year’s conference tournament as the No. 3 seed. But St. Francis dominated in its first two games and defeated top-seeded Long Island-Brooklyn 8-6 Sunday to clinch its third-straight NEC title after falling to the Blackbirds 6-1 earlier in the day, setting up a winner-take-all scenario.

“Our quote for the week was that ‘we were going in to take what was ours,’ ” said Bower. “We kept that faith even when we lost Game 1 on championship Sunday.”

Despite a deceiving 29-29 record the Red Flash carry into this weekend’s games, it shouldn’t be overlooked the competition St. Francis faced this season in non-conference action. St. Francis fell 3-1 at Alabama, which was ranked fifth at the time and was awarded the No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Red Flash also split a pair of games against Toledo, which also qualified for the tournament. Because of the difficult schedule, St. Francis went 16-12 against non-conference opponents.

“When we were down at Georgia Southern at the beginning of the year the seniors said wait until we get to conference play and the ‘real team’ will show up,” said O’Donnell. “We were splitting with a lot of teams and when we were in conference it was ‘once we get into the conference tournament we’ll be fine.’ I really believed that and that was a lot of my message heading into the conference tournament.”

While the non-conference schedule can help prepare the Red Flash, some of the top talent in the country will reside in Ann Arbor this weekend. Michigan went 43-11 this season, with a lone conference loss coming in extra innings to Ohio State. The Wolverines have won 14 straight and are undefeated at home this season.

Additionally, St. Francis may also have to face James Madison, which was ranked higher than Michigan in the most recent coaches poll. Much like Michigan, the Dukes went 47-7 overall and had one conference loss. James Madison defeated the Wolverines at the beginning of March.

The final team in the regional is DePaul, which defeated Villanova in the Big East Tournament to earn an automatic berth. The Blue Demons will face James Madison Friday afternoon.

After being sent to the desert to face Arizona the past two seasons, St. Francis welcomes the change of pace to a venue that’s closer in proximity.

“I was so excited (when our name popped up),” Bower said. 

“It’s fun to travel across the country, but the reality that it’s close enough to have our friends and family travel to support us, that’s a game-changer. 

“We can’t get enough of that.”

Prior to the start of the conference tournament, O’Donnell mentioned how the pitching was “coming around” after having a staff ERA of 6.69 in non-conference action. The workhorse that has emerged from the staff is freshman Tina Clark, who suffered a knee injury and didn’t pitch her senior season of high school. Clark was on a pitch count in the fall, but her NEC Tournament MVP award makes a statement that the best is yet to come.

“It’s been a lot of trusting my spins and having others trust in me,” said Clark. “I’ve focused mostly on attacking batters and not really playing around with them. I’ve learned to pitch more to the batter than to the plate.”

St. Francis opens up regional play at 4:30 Friday against Michigan. The game will be televised on ESPNU.