Bears to Face Iona in NCAA Elimination Contest Saturday
No. 3 Missouri State Bears (29-24) vs. No. 4 Iona Gaels (31-21)
at NCAA Division I Softball Championship - Norman Regional
Date/Time: Saturday, May 21 @ 3:30 p.m.Site: Marita Hynes Field/OU Softball Complex (1,000)Location: Norman, Okla.
Radio: KBFL AM 1060 TV: NoneLive Stats and Streaming Video: SoonerSports.comTickets: SoonerSports.com
After dropping their opening game of the NCAA Division I Softball Championship to Tulsa by a 9-7 score Friday, the third-seeded Missouri State Bears (29-24) will face the No. 4 Iona Gaels (31-21) Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. for the right to continue on in the Norman Regional. The winner of the matchup will square off against the loser of Saturday's first game (1 p.m.), pitting the top seeded Oklahoma Sooners against the No. 2 seed Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
Follow The Bears
Each Missouri State contest at the Norman Regional will be broadcast by Meyer Communications live on KBFL AM 1060, with Rob Evans describing the action. Live stats for the regional will be available through the host institution's athletics web site, www.SoonerSports.com. Additionally, live streaming video of each regional game will be carried on OU's athletics web site.
Regional Quick Hits
-Missouri State is making its sixth NCAA Tournament appearance and its first since 2006; MSU is now 2-11 in NCAA Tournament play and 1-9 under head coach Holly Hesse; including 10 AIAW postseason appearances, the Bears are 28-26 overall in postseason play
-Saturday's game will be the first meeting between teh Bears and Gaels and just the second ever for MSU against a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
-The Bears went 0-2 in their previous trip to the Norman Regional in 1997, falling to Washington and Oklahoma
-The Bears are 0-1 against the regional host Oklahoma in NCAA play, dropping a 7-2 decision to the Sooners on their home field in 1997; MSU has never squared off against a member of either the MAAC or Conference USA in the NCAA Tournament
-Missouri State has dropped its last five NCAA Tournament contests, going 0-2 at the Los Angeles Regional in 1996 in its last appearance and losing its final two games of the 1998 Stillwater Regional after topping Stanford, 5-2, in its first game of that meet
-MSU is 2-13 against the entire NCAA Tournament field this season, with wins against Indiana and Illinois State to its credit
-The Bears' four-member senior class capped their MVC Tournament careers with a 10-4 mark in the Championship in four appearances and their first team title
-MSU won the MVC Tournament title as the No. 5 seed for the second time last week after becoming the first Valley club to accomplish the feat in 1997, when they topped Drake by an identical 7-4 score
-The Bears also became just the second host school to capture the MVC Tournament title in the 28-year history of the event, joining the 2009 Bradley Braves in that exclusive club
-Hesse needs just two more victories to become the fourth coach in Valley history to reach the 600 career win plateau
-The Bears are now 16-6 in four stints as MVC Championship host, with a pair of runner-up finishes (1984, 1994) to go along with this year's championship; MSU has advanced to at least the semifinal round in each of the four Championships it has hosted
-With four wins in this year's MVC Tournament, Missouri State has amassed more wins (67) than any other Valley team at the MVC Championship; the Bears pulled even with Creighton for the most tourney titles (6)Series Histories
Saturday's meeting with Iona will be the first in the series for the two clubs and just the second ever for the Bears against a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. In March 2003, MSU defeated Siena, 8-3, in its only previous meeting with a MAAC school.
Scouting The Bears
Missouri State wrapped up its sixth MVC Tournament championship last weekend following a fifth-place Valley regular-season finish that secured its first winning season in three years. The Bears, who have dropped seven games to nationally-ranked clubs this season, returned 12 letterwinners and seven regular starters from last year's 21-32 squad that finished in a tie for fourth in the MVC's regular-season standings. MSU is led by sophomore Kirstin Cutter, who has set the table for the MSU attack throughout the season, ranking among the MVC's leaders in hitting (.307) and stolen bases (15) coming into the tournament. Senior first baseman Ashley Knehans was close behind Cutter with a .304 batting mark after a torrid MVC Championship. She led the club coming into NCAA Tournament play with 27 RBIs and ranks fifth all-time at Missouri State in career homers with 16. The Bears will be without the services of senior Jenna Schwark, who suffered a season-ending broken hand last week after hitting .287 over MSU's first 49 contests. Seniors Christa Gammon and Tyler Porter helped pick up some of the slack in Schwark's absence, combining to go 9-of-25 (.360) with six runs scored in the MVC Tournament.
Another recent loss that figures to play a prominent role in the Bears' NCAA fortunes is that of junior ace Natalie Rose, who was declared academically ineligible for the remainder of the season on Wednesday. Rose, the MVP of last week's MVC Tournament, led the MVC in strikeouts and saves and became the first Bear in 12 years to top the 20-win mark. In her absence, MSU will rely on freshman right-hander Savannah Wiggins, who went 7-3 in 23 appearances during the regular season, posting a 4.04 ERA.
Scouting The Field
Highlighting the regional field is the host Oklahoma Sooners, who earned the No. 9 national seed in this year's NCAA Tournament after going 38-16 and finishing fifth in the ultra-competitive Big 12 Conference during the regular season. Oklahoma is no stranger to the postseason, finishing 47-12 with an NCAA Super Regional appearance last year. The Sooners, who are batting .306 with 67 homers as a team, brought back 10 letterwinners from that club, led by sophomore Jessica Shults, who has clubbed 19 home runs while hitting .342. Another sophomore, Keilani Rickets, has followed up her 32-win rookie campaign with a strong sophomore season that has seen her go 25-12 with a 1.45 ERA and eight shutouts to go along with 389 strikeouts in just 236.2 innings-pitched.
Tulsa shared the Conference USA regular-season title and enters the tournament with a 43-13 record after returning nine letterwinners from last year's 31-21 squad that finished second in the league. The Golden Hurricane relies on the right arm of freshman Aimee Creger (24-2, 0.79 ERA), whose earned run average leads the nation coming into the tournament. Creger, who has 247 strikeouts in just 185.0 innings pitched, has limited the opposition to a .125 batting average against to help TU post a team 1.68 ERA. At the plate, the Golden Hurricane are led by sophomore outfielder Caitlin Everett, who is hitting .407 with 32 steals on the season. Another sophomore, Samantha Cobb, leads the club with 44 RBIs to go along with a .339 average. As a team, Tulsa comes into the postseason batting .285 with a +135 run differential on the year.
The Iona Gaels captured their second consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament title last weekend to improve to 31-20 on the year. After a slow start, the Gaels have caught fire over the last four weeks, winning 21 of their last 25 contests. Leading the way has been two-way threat Alyssa Maiese, who paces the club in most offensive categories, including a .365 batting average, 12 homers and 37 runs batted-in. The senior transfer has been solid in the circle as well, compiling a 12-8 record and 2.39 ERA in 25 appearances. Junior right-hander Sarah Jackson has been even better for the Gaels, winning 17 of her 25 decisions and posting a 1.85 earned run average and six shutouts on the season. Junior infielder Chelsea Sheehan (.325 BA) and senior utility Melanie Gettins (4 HR/24 RBIs) have also played key roles for Iona.
Six Flags Over Springfield
Behind the pitching of Natalie Rose and some timely hitting, the Bears swept through the field at last week's State Farm MVC Championship, becoming just the second host school to win the league's postseason tournament in the 28-year history of the event. Rose became the fifth Bear to be named tournament MVP after posting a pair of shutouts on the opening day of the meet and accounting for all four MSU wins while posting a 1.50 ERA. Three other Bears garnered all-tournament recognition, including seniors Ashley Knehans, who batted .417 to lead the Bears, and Tyler Porter whose six hits and five runs scored were the top marks in the tournament. Freshman third-baseman Heather Duckworth also earned all-tourney recognition after coming up with several clutch hits while playing an error-free third base in the tournament.
While pitching was the name of the game early in the tournament, the Bears' offense came alive in Saturday's championship game against Drake to pave the way to victory. MSU got an early two-run homer from sophomore Stevie Pierce, then put the game away with a four-run sixth inning. Pierce registered a near-perfect day at the plate, going 2-for-2 with a pair of walks and four RBIs to key the Bears' sixth MVC Tournament championship with a 7-4 victory.
Deja Vu All Over Again
Although they were hosting their first MVC Championship in 17 years, the Bears' sixth conference tournament title had a familiar feel to it. MSU captured the crown as the fifth seed for the second time, the first of which came exactly 14 years to the date earlier on May 14, 1997. Additionally, the Bears' 7-4 victory over Drake in the championship contest Saturday mirrored their 7-4 win in the 1997 title game. That victory came against--you guessed it--Drake, as well.
The Bears have now gone 16-6 in four MVC Championship appearances as tournament host with this year's title and a pair of runner-up finishes (1984 and 1994) to their credit. MSU is now 16-11 as the fifth seed in the tournament.
That Time of Year Again
Missouri State has made a habit of saving some of its best performances for the Valley Tournament, having racked up more MVC Tournament victories (67) than any other league club. Illinois State (52) is a distant second in that category, and the Bears matched Creighton for the most tourney titles over the 28-year history of the event by claiming their sixth crown Saturday. Furthermore, head coach Holly Hesse moved past Illinois State's Melinda Fischer for the most tournament victories (45) with Saturday's win. Hesse's career total is higher than the number of total team wins in the championship for every Valley other club except Illinois State.
Missouri State has battled adversity all season long to reach the ultimate prize of a Missouri Valley Conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance. At one point or another in 2011, the Bears have been without the services of seven different regulars in the starting lineup. Junior right-hander Natalie Rose became the most-recent casualty Wednesday, when the junior was declared academically ineligible for the remainder of the season following the certification of Spring 2011 semester grades. She joins one of the Bears' top run producers in senior Jenna Schwark on the sidelines for the NCAA Tournament. The senior utility broke her hand prior to MSU's MVC quarterfinal matchup with UNI last Thursday and is expected to miss the rest of the season.
Over a three-week stretch in late March and early April, the Bears were without the services of five different starters at one point or another due to injury or illness. Senior second baseman Christa Gammon did not travel with the team for its two-game series with Indiana State (March 26-27), while sophomore catcher Madison Hargrove missed the final game of that series, as well as three games against Illinois State (April 2-3) with a concussion. In addition, sophomore outfielder/DP Stevie Pierce was forced to miss more than a month with a hand injury, and senior outfielder Tyler Porter missed the Bears' April 3 game at Illinois State due to illness. Schwark also missed some time in the ISU series with a hand injury, and sophomore utility Caitlin Chapin missed two weeks in mid April with a concussion.
The Bears bring a 28-25 all-time mark in postseason play into this year's NCAA Tournament. Since the inception of the NCAA Division I Softball Championship in 1983, Missouri State is just 2-10, however, including four straight setbacks dating back to 1998. The Bears' only two victories in the Championship came in 1983 in Columbia, Mo., when they bested Missouri, 3-1, in their very first game in the tournament. MSU then went 15 years in between NCAA victories, grabbing a 5-2 win over No. 1 seed Stanford in the 1998 NCAA Tournament opener in Stillwater, Okla.
Prior to NCAA play, the Bears went 26-15 in 10 AIAW postseason tournament appearances, highlighted by their 1974 AIAW Division I national championship.
Missouri State seniors Christa Gammon, Ashley Knehans and Tyler Porter combined to bat .375 (15-for-40) to lead the Bears' charge to the MVC Championship last week. Knehans and Porter earned the first MVC All-Tournament Team honors of their careers, while Gammon batted .300 for the tournament. Over the course of the Bears' current seven-game win streak, MSU's four seniors have combined to bat .391 (27-for-69).
That type of veteran leadership has been the norm throughout the Bears' challenging 2011 season. Knehans and Porter teamed up to hit .536 (15-of-28) while slugging .714 to power the Bears' perfect 5-0 week, April 12-17. Each recorded at least one hit in every game, with Porter scoring a team-high six times over the five-game stretch. Knehans tied a career high for hits in a single game April 12 against UMKC, going 3-for-3 in MSU's 9-1 win. She clubbed her 16th home run as a Bear in MSU's series opener at Bradley (April 16) to highlight MSU's three-run first inning that paved the way to a 10-1 rout and eventual series sweep. In all, the duo scored nine runs and drove in six while also playing perfect defense in 36 chances in the field.
Porter extended her career-best hit streak to eight games April 20 after picking up hits in each of the Bears' two wins over Wichita State. The Broken Arrow, Okla., product batted .455 with seven runs scored over the course of her career-best eight-game hit streak.
Gammon and fellow senior Jenna Schwark got into the act as well in MSU's sweep of the Shockers. Schwark, who went 3-of-7 against WSU, posted three multi-hit games to go along with five runs scored and three RBIs in five contests the April 16-20. Schwark saved her best week of the season for last, batting .700 and slugging 1.200 to help the Bears go 3-1 to wrap up the regular season with a fifth-place Valley finish. The Broken Arrow, Okla., product reached base safely in seven consecutive plate appearances, spearheading MSU's doubleheader sweep of Evansville (May 7) by going 5-for-6 with a home run and two RBIs. Schwark sparked both game-clinching rallies with hits-one of which went the distance for her second homer of the season-in a pair of one-run victories for the Bears. Before sustaining her seasson (and career)-ending hand injury last Thursday, Schwark was batting .636 over the first four games of the current MSU win streak.
Gammon, meanwhile, was 3-of-6 at the plate with a pair of runs batted-in, including the game-winner in the seventh inning of game two at Wichita State April 20.
As a group, the four MSU seniors batted .407 with 19 runs scored and 15 RBIs during the Bears' first seven-game win streak of the season, April 12-20.
Who Came Up With This Schedule, Anyway?
Missouri State played seven games against four ranked opponents during the regular season. In those seven outings, the Bears were out-hit 62-21 and out-scored 44-4 in going 0-7 against No. 13 Texas (twice), No. 18 Missouri, No. 10 Oklahoma (twice) and No. 18/21 Oklahoma State (twice). Indiana, which the Bears defeated 3-2 in eight innings on March 12, cracked the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 poll for the first time all season on May 3, coming in at No. 24. Additionally, two other MSU opponents (Illinois State and Tulsa) are receiving votes in Top 25 polls this week. The Bears now have a 15-game losing streak vs. teams ranked in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25, with their last win coming at then-No. 11 OU on March 19, 2008.
On a Roll
With seven-game win streaks April 12-20, and again May 7-14, Missouri State established not just season highs for consecutive wins, but also their longest win streaks in five years. The last time the Bears posted at least seven straight victories came during their last MVC championship season of 2006, when they won 10 games in-a-row. The Bears' most-recent seven-game win streak was their ninth stretch of five or more consecutive wins over the last decade.
The Bears Under Holly Hesse
Missouri State head coach Holly Hesse (Creighton, '82) is 598-582-2 (.506) in her 23rd season at Missouri State. Hesse's teams have made five trips to the NCAA Tournament (1996, 1997, 1998, 2006, 2011) in all and have won five Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championships. Last week, Hesse guided the Bears to the fifth MVC Tournament title of her tenure, becoming the all-time winningest Valley coach in Championship history with MSU's 7-4 title-game win over Drake. The championship represented the first for Missouri State since 2006, when Hesse led the Bears to a school-record 40 wins and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. She also led the Bears to the Gateway Conference regular season championship in 1992 and the MVC regular-season title in 1994. Hesse then steered MSU to MVC tourney crowns in three consecutive years from 1996 to 1998, making the Bears the first-ever Valley program to accomplish the feat. Missouri State's 2006 campaign was the sixth time the Bears have won 30 games in a season, and they entered the 2011 season with an average of over 24 wins per season since her arrival in 1989. The Bears' fifth-place MVC in finish this year marked the 14th time during her tenure MSU has finished in the top-five of the conference standings. Hesse won her 500th career game at Missouri State in a 1-0 triumph over Indiana State on April 22, 2007, and needs just two more victories to become just the fourth Valley coach to reach the 600-win plateau.