Olympic Sports

Herd at-large bid for NCAA Tourney berth at UK, vs. Illinois Friday

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HerdZone.com release from Chuck McGill, edited by Woody Woodrum of HI

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The Marshall University softball team gathered to watch Sunday night’s NCAA Selection Show on ESPN2. Some players took a seat on a couch, others on the floor, and all fixated on the analysts as the brackets were revealed.

Finally, at 10:19 p.m., and with more than half of the regional pairings unveiled, “Marshall” flashed on the screen. The Herd had earned an at-large invitation to this week’s NCAA Regionals. Angst turned into euphoria.

“Oh my gosh, I freaked out,” said Shaelynn Braxton, a senior who was on the 2013 team that earned an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. “It was surreal. I think this one hit me even more than my freshman year because we knew we were going and we knew Kentucky was most likely the spot. This year, everything was up in the air. We didn’t know if we were going to be on the East Coast or go to the West Coast, but we’re only going two hours away. It’s absolutely amazing.”

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There are 16 regions comprised of four teams each. One team in each region is seeded, and that is the host school. Marshall (41-10) will play Illinois (37-18) of the Big Ten on Friday at noon at the University of Kentucky’s 1,500-seat John Cropp Stadium. No. 14-ranked (by NCAA Tournament committee) Kentucky (36-17), one of the 13 SEC teams selected for the NCAA Tourney, is the No. 1 regional seed in the region and will play No. 4 regional seed DePaul (29-21) of the Big East on Friday at 2:30 p.m.

The No. 3 regional seed Marshall will play an opening game which will be televised by ESPN2 against the No. 2 regional seed in the Illini. That is the fate Herd coach Shonda Stanton envisioned for this team.

The at-large bid is a significant achievement. The Marshall softball program advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history in 2013 after winning the C-USA tournament. That version of the Herd punched an automatic ticket, so the selection night uncertainty revolved around opponent and destination.

“Obviously, everybody was a little bit nervous,” Stanton said. “When you don’t take care of business your fate is left in somebody else’s hands, but we felt our body of work spoke for itself. What I really wanted was an opportunity for these athletes to be able to show themselves on a national stage because we believe in this group so much.”

This year’s at-large berth, however, is another step for the program. There are 16 regions made up of four teams, and only half of those 64 teams – 32 – receive an at-large invitation. That means the selection committee was more impressed by Marshall’s body of work – the wins, the national ranking, the RPI – than a couple of hiccups at the conference tournament two days before the NCAA field was announced, going 1-2 at the C-USA Championship.

Marshall’s first-day opponent, the Illini, told Annice McEwan of www.illinoishomepage.net they are excited to have another shot at the NCAA Tournament, but the players can’t help but remember the sting of last year’s loss in Lexington to UK. “It’s a familiar place for us so we kind of have a chance to go back, and we have unfinished business to do there,” Illini head coach Tyra Perry said. “Hopefully we can go out and have some energy and that can be a fuel and a catalyst for us to do well.”

“We’re ready to go back to Kentucky and just get revenge on last year,” Illinois senior pitcher Breanna Wonderly said. “We’re not quite over that.” Her teammate agreed. “It’s exciting to go back to Kentucky really. It’s a chance at revenge just to redeem ourselves,” senior infielder Ruby Rivera said. “Just go back and just have fun and do our thing. Whatever outcome happens, as long as we play our game and have fun, that’s all that really matters.” Illinois was fourth in the Big Ten at 14-8, beat Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, 3-0, then lost to eventual Big Ten Champs Minnesota, 6-5 – the second Big Ten championship in a row for the Golden Gophers, and second year in a row they eliminated the Illini.

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Marshall entered the C-USA Tournament as regular season champion and top overall seed and won game one on Thursday with a no-hitter by Jordan Dixon to beat WKU, 2-0. But then on Friday, the Herd lost consecutive games Friday – to fellow NCAA-bound teams Florida International (4-1) and Louisiana Tech (4-2), who won the league tournament to get the automatic bid – to set up Sunday’s selection suspense. Marshall scored only five runs in three games last week.

“We didn’t have a great Conference USA tournament,” Stanton said, “and we didn’t want that to be a nail in the coffin. I started to look at it Friday and when I was combing over the numbers I did not see any margin of error for us to sneak in.”

The Herd dropped from No. 26 to No. 28 in the national RPI this week with the 1-2 mark at the Conference USA Tournament. Rankings for the USA Today and ESPN polls have been released on Tuesdays all season long.

Marshall will make a 128-mile trek west for regionals, and the stadium will be a familiar one. The Herd was scheduled to play at Kentucky on April 11 and waited through a lengthy weather delay before the game was called off and not rescheduled. Still, there is value to the game that wasn’t played.

“Everybody has had a chance to see the layout of the field and they’ve seen the stadium,” Braxton said. “We’re not going to see anything new. What I’m going to remember most is the excitement when you’re in a room and the aura of the room changes,” Braxton said. “Something happens and you can feel that feeling of excitement. As soon as we saw it on TV we all freaked out and I felt that feeling. I got chills.”

MUSB 2017 Clinch C-USA Regular Season Crown

Marshall enters the NCAA Tournament off a season that ended with the Conference USA Regular Season Championship. (HI file photo)

After securing the 2017 C-USA Championship crown for the first time in program history, Louisiana Tech earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Championship and will be heading to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as the No. 3 seed. The Lady Techsters join host Alabama along with Minnesota and Albany to form one of 16 four-team fields that will compete in the three-day, double elimination regional starting on Friday. LA Tech opens play against the 2-seeded Minnesota Gophers on Friday at 1:30 p.m. CT on ESPNU.

As the 2017 C-USA Championship runner-up, (RV) FIU makes its third postseason appearance in program history (2003, 2010) and will enter as the No. 3 seed in Gainesville, Florida. FIU joins host Florida along with Oklahoma State and Florida A&M in the four-team regional field. The Panthers will open play against the 2-seeded Oklahoma State Cowgirls on Friday at 11 a.m. CT on ESPNU.

As the 2017 C-USA Championship runner-up, (RV) FIU makes its third postseason appearance in program history (2003, 2010) and will enter as the No. 3 seed in Gainesville, Florida. FIU joins host Florida along with Oklahoma State and Florida A&M in the four-team regional field. The Panthers will open play against the 2-seeded Oklahoma State Cowgirls on Friday at 12 p.m. EDT on ESPNU.

WKU will also compete in postseason play, after accepting a bid to compete in the inaugural National Invitational Softball Championships (NISC) and making four teams in the postseason for C-USA. WKU capped off an impressive run as the eight-seed with a semifinals appearance in the C-USA Championship, playing in three extra-innings games in four tournament outings last week, and will continue its season in the inaugural NISC.

The Lady Toppers will head to Atlanta to take on Alabama State in the Georgia State Regional on Tuesday at 2 p.m. EDT. Kennesaw State, Georgia State, and UT Martin make up the rest of the regional competitors. Each double-elimination regional concludes play on Thursday, May 18, and the six-team Championship Round, also double elimination, will run May 21-24 at a host site to be determined.

This is the first time C-USA has sent four teams to the postseason since 2013 when Marshall was the  C-USA Tournament Champion. The Herd, Houston, Tulsa and UAB all played in the NCAA Regionals, while UAB advanced to the Super Regional. The league had five teams selected in both 2011 and 2004 and four selected in 2013, 2012, and 2008. The league has had at least one team since its first tournament in 2000, but only had one team in 2016 and only two teams selected in 2015 and 2014.

Marshall at UK Regional, NCAA Tournament information:

The University of Kentucky will be one of 16 regional host sites for the 2017 NCAA Division I Softball Championship. The double-elimination tournament will be played at John Cropp Stadium starting on Friday, May 19 and running through Sunday, May 21. The full schedule is below, including the Marshall Thundering Herd, Illinois Illini – who heads back to Lexington, Ky. for the second year in a row – and DePaul Blue Demond, winner of its third Big East title to grab an automatic berth.

Tickets go on sale Monday, May 15, at 9 a.m. All-session reserved chairback seats are $40, and general admission (bleachers) are $25. Those tickets are good for the duration (six or seven games) of the three-day regional. Single-session tickets are $15 for reserved chairbacks, $10 for general admission (bleachers) for ages 18-64, and $8 for general admission (bleachers) for youth (ages 2-18) and seniors (65 and older).

Fans can purchase tickets by clicking on the following link: http://www.ukathletics.com/page/tickets-ncaa-softball-regional

Session 1: Friday, May 19

Game 1: No. 2 Illinois vs. No. 3 Marshall, noon

Game 2: No. 4 DePaul vs. No. 1 Kentucky, 2:30 p.m.

Session 2: Saturday, May 20

Game 3: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2

Game 4: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2

Game 5: Loser Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4

Session 3: Sunday, May 21

Game 6: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5

Game 7: If necessary

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NCAA Softball Tournament Bracket for 2017.

About Woody Woodrum

Senior Editor and columnist/writer for Herd Insider since 2003, with Kindred Communications on radio for Marshall football/men's basketball pregame and postgame shows since 1996 and with First Sentry Bank Sportsline (Also Scott on Sports, Sideline Sports and Herd Insider Sportsline) since 1997. Married to Liz (12-22-1990) and one son, Tre' (11-7-1997). National Sportswriters & Sportscasters West Virginia Broadcaster of the Year winner for radio, 2000; won W.Va. Broadcasters Best Talk Show in 2013 with co-host Paul Swann and W.Va. Broadcasters Best Play-by-Play in 2015 with Jason Toy (Huntington at South Charleston, state AAA semifinals). Member of (College) Football Writers Association of America, (College) Basketball Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Color commentator for Marshall football (1999-2000), for Marshall basketball (2004-2016) and Marshall baseball (2004-2016). Color for high school football at Spring Valley (1999-2008), Cabell Midland (2009-2012) and Huntington (W.Va.) High School (2013-2016).

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