After 20 years of anonymity in the collegiate softball world, Santa Barbara now has the chance to be a no-namer no more. In just her third year, Head Coach Kristy Schroeder has catapulted the Gauchos into the NCAA Regionals, uncharted water for the blue and gold in their tenure at the Division I level.
The UCSB softball team (33-8 overall, 14-7 in the Big West) confirmed its first ever postseason appearance this year by finishing second place in the Big West Conference, notching 10 wins against ranked opponents and winning 14 of its final 20 games. Santa Barbara has earned the #6 seed in NCAA Region 1 and will play #3 seed Northwestern on Thursday at 9:00 a.m. in Tuscon, Ariz.
“I am so proud of this team, and I truly believe that we are capable of upsetting any team out there. There is no team that I think we cannot beat,” Schroeder said.
The Wildcats (32-18 Big Ten, 12-8 overall) enter the postseason veterans of the NCAA Tournament. Last year, then second year Head Coach Kate Drohan’s squad earned a bid for the seventh time in the program’s history. Regardless, the Gauchos feel that they have an excellent shot at upsetting their first round matchup despite their inexperience.
“We have beaten many good caliber teams this season and are not scared of anyone,” freshman left fielder Jessica Hejna said. “We played UCLA and Cal, who are both top teams and put up excellent fights, and even had some chances to win some of those games. We also proved we can beat top teams by beating Fresno State, Pacific and Long Beach.”
Northwestern finished fourth in a very strong and talented Big Ten Conference this season. The Wildcats defeated first-place Michigan and went 11-12 against schools in the 64-team tournament field. Northwestern features a legitimate budding superstar in freshman first basemen Garland Cooper, who delivered a phenomenal debut season, leading her squad with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs while batting a stellar .381 on the season.
The Wildcats will most likely throw their ace at the Gauchos in freshman pitcher Eileen Canney, who posts an 18-3 record with a 2.17 ERA.
“Northwestern has a lot of weapons, but we are ready for what they bring to the table,” freshman catcher Shelby Hensler said. “As of late we have been playing good softball and worked our entire year for this moment.”
While the Wildcats have garnered a fair amount of attention this year having been ranked twice in the USA Today Top 25 in March, the Gauchos have risen from a conference that sent four teams to the postseason. And unfortunately for Northwestern, the Gauchos are peaking at just the right time.
“I knew that if we finished in the top three in the Big West that we would have a good shot at making the tournament, and I knew that this team was very capable of achieving that goal,” Schroeder said. “We struggled at the start of the season, but when we found our chemistry, we came together at the end of the season when it really mattered.”
The NCAA Regionals are designed in a double elimination format where a team must be defeated twice at any point in the tourney to be officially eliminated. Should the Gauchos upset Northwestern, their next game would be Friday at 11:30 a.m., but should they lose they would play Thursday at 7 p.m.