Despite being an eight-seed that made it in on the last day of the regular season, Northwest Missouri State enters this weekend's MIAA Softball Tournament in Overland Park, Kan., overflowing with confidence.
The senior-laden Bearcats aren't the least bit intimidated by any of the seven teams seeded above them and see no reason why they can't be the first eight seed in tournament history to win it.
"There's not a team in this conference I don't think we can beat," said senior catcher Kylie Cantrell after homering twice in the team's 6-5 win in game two over Lincoln Tuesday. "Right now, the MIAA is a dogfight. Just because we're an eight seed doesn't mean we're eighth. Any given day the ball drops differently."
It's not false bravado.
MIAA Tournament qualifiers for the fourth straight year, the Bearcats (27-17, 15-13) may be the best No. 8 seed in the 13-year history of the event.
They finished the regular season with one less MIAA win than fifth-seeded Northeastern State and three less than fourth-seeded Emporia State. Moreover, the Bearcats went just 1-9 against the top five teams in the conference, but eight of the nine losses came by two runs or less. They held the lead in four of those games.
"We were in every game," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ryan Anderson. "I hope that's what they realize. I think the thing about this conference this year is if we win two games in Oklahoma, we just clinched fifth place instead of having to clinch (Tuesday) to actually get into the tournament. It's just such a compact conference this year. Fort Hays had a great year. UCO had a good year. Everybody else, it's whoever shows up."
The Bearcats have to spring at least one upset on day one of the double-elimination tournament, which was pushed back to Friday, in order to stick around for day two.
They face off with No. 1 seed Central Oklahoma (39-9, 23-3) in their first game at 2 p.m.
The two teams are meeting for the second weekend in a row.
UCO swept Northwest in Edmond, Okla. Sunday, clinching the MIAA regular season title.
The Bronchos won game one 5-3 and beat Northwest 5-4 in game two on a walk-off, two-run homer by third baseman Kacie Edwards in the eighth inning.
Northwest held a 4-3 lead entering the bottom of the eighth and was two outs away from gaining a split.
"We hit both pitchers well at UCO," said Anderson. "We had plenty of opportunities especially when we had the bases loaded and couldn't score a run. Give it to them, they pitched their way out of those situations. We have to be ready to step in and swing the bat. We know what they throw. We know what they're doing, so we have to have the confidence."
Page 2 of 3 - Northwest snapped a five-game losing streak with its sweep of Lincoln Tuesday which got them into the tournament.
The Bearcats are hitting .296 as a team, sixth-best in the MIAA. They are second in fielding percentage (.970) and fifth in team ERA (3.04).
Candace Miller's .370 average leads the Bearcats and four other starters are hitting over .300. Cantrell and shortstop Stephanie Price are tied for the team lead with seven home runs, while second baseman Hailee Hendricks and third baseman Kristen Uthe each have five.
MIAA regular season champion UCO leads the conference with a .335 average and its lineup contains three of the MIAA's top eight hitters.
Edwards, the reigning national player of the year, is third in the MIAA with a .428 average and is tied with Fort Hays State's Maddie Holub for the league-lead in home runs with 18.
She drove in six of UCO's 10 runs last weekend and went deep three times. Speedy Kaylee Brunson is hitting .390 with 24 stolen bases.
Clean-up hitter Nicole Workman sports a .385 average with 13 home runs.
Ranked fourth in the MIAA in ERA, Creger (13-9, 1.92 ERA) is tasked with holding down the league's most potent attack.
In her last start against UCO, she gave up five runs on six hits in six innings with seven strikeouts and two walks.
UCO scored four of its five runs on two Edwards homers, one of which was a three-run blast.
"We have to keep mixing it up and hopefully get (Edwards) to chase," said Anderson. "It's not like you can pitch around her. They've got two kids behind her that have 12 and 13 home runs. They can all pound the ball there."
The Bronchos' starting pitcher will either be junior lefty Kalynn Schrock (23-4, 1.93 ERA) or junior righty Amanda McClelland (11-2, 3.21 ERA). Schrock earned the win in game one last weekend, giving up six hits and two earned runs over seven innings. She struck out nine and walked three.
McClelland surrendered five hits and two earned runs over eight innings in game two. She handed out six free passes and matched that total in strikeouts.
"We hit both of their pitchers hard; they just hit the ball a little harder," said Cantrell. "We just need to come back strong defensively and with our pitching staff. I know we have a strong pitching staff, so we'll be fine."
The winner of Northwest/UCO plays the winner of No. 4 seed Emporia State and No. 5 Northeastern State at 4 p.m. The two losers meet in an elimination game at 4 p.m.
Northwest went 1-3 against its two potential second game opponents during the regular season, beating only Emporia State.
Page 3 of 3 - The Bearcats have lost their opening game of the MIAA Tournament each of the last three seasons. Last year as a seven seed, they went 1-2 and were eliminated by Central Missouri.
"If we play Northeastern in the second game, it shouldn't matter," said Anderson. "We're going in to light them up. We're going to hit the ball. Hopefully, we can do some damage."