Despite going 6-2 on a recently completed eight-game homestand, Northwest Missouri State's softball team still has more work to do in order to lock down one of the eight MIAA Tournament bids.
The Bearcats (25-13, 13-9) are currently in sixth place, but the three teams behind them—Truman State, Central Missouri and Pittsburg State—are all within two games.
Northwest has six games remaining in the regular season, while the other tournament contenders each have four. UCM and Pittsburg State play each other Saturday. Truman State visits Washburn and Emporia State over the weekend.
The Bearcats have four tough road games ahead against fifth-place Northeastern State Saturday and conference leading Central Oklahoma Sunday.
They conclude the regular season Tuesday with a make-up doubleheader against Lincoln.
The Bearcats hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with both Truman and Pitt, requiring both schools to finish a game ahead of the them to have a better seed.
With a strong finish, Northwest could conceivably finish as high as third in the conference. The Bearcats trail NSU by a game, fourth-place Emporia State by two games and third-place Missouri Western by three games.
Fourth is probably the ceiling with Western owning the head-to-head tiebreaker against Northwest.
Bottom of the order thunder
Occupying two of the last three spots in a more balanced Northwest lineup, two-year starting catcher Kylie Cantrell and converted first baseman Rachael Schmitz have been at the forefront of the team's recent power surge.
Cantrell and Schmitz combined for five home runs on the team's eight-game homestand that concluded Sunday with a doubleheader split against Emporia State. They entered that stretch of games with only three collectively, all by Cantrell.
Cantrell ended Northwest's 5-2 win over Lindenwood with a three-run blast in the eighth inning and went deep again in the first game of Northwest's sweep of Washburn.
Schmitz homered twice in Northwest's sweep of Truman, and the following Sunday, hit her third home run in a 4-3 win versus Emporia State.
Both Schmitz and Cantrell are having their best offensive years at Northwest.
Schmitz, a four-year starter who went to nearby Jefferson, is hitting a career-high .276 with a .409 on-base percentage that leads the team. In her previous two seasons, she hit .200 and .131.
Cantrell, a transfer from the College of The Siskyious in Oregon, boasts a .253 average with five home runs. The year before, she hit .138 with only one home run.
Time running out
Having won five straight and 10 of its last 13, Northwest Missouri State's baseball team is in the midst of its hottest stretch in several seasons.
Page 2 of 3 - Even so, the Bearcats need a lot to go right during the final week of the regular season to qualify for the MIAA Tournament's first round best-of-three series.
Northwest (19-25, 16-22) trails co-eighth place teams Fort Hays State (23-18, 19-17) and Pittsburg State (23-19, 19-17) by four games with five to play. Lindenwood, Southwest Baptist and Nebraska-Kearney are also at least two ahead of the 12th-place Bearcats.
Pittsburg State is the only one of the top eight teams Northwest can catch since the Tigers have just two games left. Those are Thursday at 1 p.m. against Northwest at Bearcat field.
Northwest will know whether its still alive by Thursday with Pitt hosting a doubleheader against Missouri Southern tonight and Lindenwood hosting Southwest Baptist.
A Pittsburg State sweep or a Lindenwood sweep eliminates Northwest even if the Bearcats sweep Fort Hays.
If both get swept or split, Northwest still has a chance. The Bearcats follow their doubleheader with Fort Hays with a three-game set at Pitt State this weekend.
"The biggest thing we have to do as far as approach is we can't sit back and say we must win five or try to wrap our head around all that," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Darin Loe. "If we concentrate on one game at a time, that's really what we have to do. We have to win the first one and put all the focus on the first one. Once we finish that, we can look forward to game two. That's what we've been doing the last two weeks. We need to continue with that mindset."
Northwest got swept in a doubleheader at Fort Hays Mar. 13, losing 3-0 and 11-3.
Austin Warren and Marcus Garrett were the two starters used by Northwest that day. This time, it will be Warren and freshman Rob Henrichs.
The Tigers took two of three from Truman State last weekend, while the Bearcats swept Lincoln.
"They're hitting about .350 as a team, so we're going to have to hit with them," said Loe. "It all goes back to quality AB's and not putting too much pressure on ourselves given the situation."
Reliable as can be
There may not be another pitcher in the MIAA that's had a greater turnaround this year than Northwest Missouri State left-hander Ryker Fox.
In the first four starts of his Bearcat career, Fox went 0-4 with a 10.50 ERA. In his last six, he's 5-0 and has given up only six earned runs in 38 innings, becoming Northwest's most dependable arm.
Fox threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout in his last outing against Lincoln Saturday despite tying his season-high with five walks.
Page 3 of 3 - This moved his record to 5-4 and dropped his ERA to 4.19—lowest among all Northwest starters.
With likely one start remaining, Fox has a chance to finish with the most wins by a Northwest starting pitcher since Chris Green's eight in 2010.
"He put a lot of pressure on himself to be successful early and he wasn't quite as sharp," said Loe. "He just focused on the process instead of worrying about ERA's or wins and losses. I told him after his last start he had the worst stuff he had all year, but he ends up throwing a three-hitter. He just battled and competed and gave us a great outing."