The long-awaited showdown is finally here.
The top two teams in the Big West square off this weekend at Campus Diamond in a battle for the Big West Championship and a ticket to the NCAA tournament.
For the UCSB softball team, the math is simple. Entering the final series of the year at 33-18 overall and 13-5 in the Big West, Santa Barbara is tied for first in the league standings. If the Gauchos win the series, they win their first-ever conference title. If not, they go home with nothing.
“It’s a better feeling that it’s on us to win instead of having to rely on other teams to lose or to beat other teams,” junior pitcher Shelby Wisdom said. “It’s in our hands. It’s our last weekend at home and it’s our last series in conference, so we’re going to play with our hearts and go all out. We just to have to know that we’re better and that we can do it.”
Long Beach travels to Santa Barbara at 36-16 overall and 13-5 in conference. Third-place Cal Poly also figures into the mix, just one game behind both the Gauchos and 49ers. The Mustangs play last-place UC Riverside this weekend.
While both Santa Barbara and CSULB stand atop the standings, it is the Gauchos that carry the momentum as winners of 12 of their last 14 games. UCSB will also have the advantage of playing at home for its seniors with Senior Day on Sunday. Long Beach, on the other hand, was swept by Cal Poly last weekend to lose control of its lead in the conference standings.
“We’re all really excited. Even at practice today, we had a big team talk about how we want to see our name on that selection show on Sunday,” junior third baseman Jenessa Jeppesen said. “We have to take it one game at a time.”
After sweeping Riverside last weekend, sophomore catcher Meme Moore was named Big West Field Player of the Week. Moore had an incredible series, tallying a slugging percentage of .800 and a batting average of .600. In the series finale, she hit 4-4 with two runs and two RBI. Moore is currently tied for first in the Big West in doubles with 13.
Last weekend, Wisdom was on her game as well, as she gave up just three earned runs in the circle while hitting 6-10 from the plate with three runs and one RBI on the offensive end.
At 21-13, Wisdom is approaching an important milestone this weekend. Currently tied with Sandy Ortigies for most career wins at 62, Wisdom could etch her name into the UCSB record books with a win against Long Beach. Ortigies’ record has stood since 1987.
“Honestly, the record doesn’t really matter to me unless we get those two wins,” Wisdom said. “I’m only a win away and that one win won’t matter. We need [two].”
One thing these two teams have in common is that offense can come from anyone. Last weekend, the Gauchos’ offensive success was a team effort. In game one, for example, seven of 10 players in the Santa Barbara lineup got a hit and five had at least two hits.
One of Santa Barbara’s biggest offensive weapons is freshman left fielder Kristen Clark, who leads the league in batting average (.432) and in hits (83). The lead-off hitter leads the league in hits by a large margin with the second-ranked player with 67, 16 less than Clark. Two weekends ago against Hawaii, she broke the single-season UCSB hits record previously owned by Assistant Coach Christine Ramos.
“It helps a lot when we get our bunts down and move runners around,” Wisdom said. “Hitting is contagious, so once one person gets a hit, the next person can get a hit easier.”
The 49ers’ success also relies on offensive production from multiple players. Senior second baseman Cya Neal is tied for third in the Big West in runs and ranks fifth in hits, while sophomore left fielder Darian Tautalafua sits in fifth in conference in runs. Furthermore, junior shortstop Shayna Kimbrough ranks fourth in conference in hits and third in batting average. Teammate and senior right fielder Sarah Carrasco is tied for first with Meme Moore in doubles. Senior catcher Karli Sandoval and senior first baseman Ashlynn Booker sit in third and fifth in league in RBI, respectively. Booker also ranks sixth in home runs.
As a team, Long Beach leads the league in runs, hits, RBI, batting average and on-base percentage.
“They can read the defense well, so we need to make sure we don’t let them read us,” Wisdom said. “[Long Beach wants] exactly what we want, so they’re going to come out and compete and we need to be ready for it.”
Defensively, senior Erin Jones-Wesley is LBSU’s top-pitcher. Her ERA of 2.96 ranks third in the Big West. UCSB, meanwhile, will counter with Wisdom, who ranks fifth at 3.17.
The 49ers also have depth in their bullpen and will look to junior Amanda Hansen as well, who ranks just behind Wisdom in ERA at 3.17.
“The biggest thing for us is taking it one pitch at a time,” Jeppesen said. “We need to not get too excited and stay composed and play our best.”
First pitch is set for noon tomorrow. After tomorrow’s double-header, the series will wrap up Saturday with game three beginning at noon.
A version of this article appeared on pages 1 and 6 of May 8, 2014’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Dustin Harris of The Daily Nexus.