Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Softballs Ends the Season, Eyes the Conference Tournament

Another team that was neglected during the last few months hiatus was the 2017 UT Arlington softball team. While it wasn't a banner year like what men's basketball experienced, or what the baseball team is currently doing, it was an improvement over last year. And right now, considering both where the UTA program is coming from and how nationally competitive the Sun Belt Conference is, I want to see improvement and I was not disappointed this year.


While they didn't start the year like they did last year, 19-0, they did actually field an team that was vying for top seeding in the SBC. This year, with a 14-13 record and a fifth place finish in the ten team SBC, the Mavericks had their best conference record since 2011. It was also the first time the team was in the top half of the standings since 2011. Should the Mavs win their first game in the conference tournament, they would hit the 30-win mark, which will also be a first since 2011.


And that's what I mean about improvements. In 2012, UTA was tied for tenth in the 11 team Southland Conference (a tie for last). In 2013, the team tied for sixth in the eight team Western Athletic Conference. In the first year in the SBC, the team was last of eight. In 2015, the team was a game below .500 overall, but still was seventh out of nine conference teams.


Then last year, the team showed a marked improvement in the overall record, the first winning season since 2011 at 29-20. But considering that 19-0 start, the team faltered in conference, 8-16 overall to again finish in seventh place out of nine teams.


So this year, UTA had both a winning record in and out of conference, one of the higher rated conferences in Division I. They won a game in every conference series, save for Louisiana, which has absolutely owned the Sun Belt for decades. UTA won five out of the nine conference series they played in, with each series playing three games.


The biggest disappointment was a road series against Appalachian State. The Mountaineers won two conference games all year, and both occurred April 29 as the Mavs were swept in the doubleheader. That would actually hurt the Mavs in the seeding, but I'll get to that in a minute.


The other major blemish on the year was a 3-2 loss at home to North Texas. I look to beat the Eagles every year in every sport, and am disappointed when the Dentonites win at anything.


But overall, the team did well in close games. That North Texas loss was one of four losses in one-run games, compared to nine wins. In games that went into extra innings, UTA sported a fair 4-2 record. The team is salty and never gives up. Never was that more apparent than in the season finale against Texas State.


The Bobcats and likely SBC-Pitcher-of-the-Year Randi Rupp were up in the final game of the series, 3-0 in the bottom of the seventh. Both teams had picked up a win in the prior two games with the series on the line. The Mavs manage to get several hits in the home half of the seventh, some not even leaving the infield, to tie the game. The winning run scored in the tenth inning on a close slide at home plate, giving UTA their first series win against Texas State since...2011. Very exciting way to end the regular season and prepare for the conference tournament.


The only real season record that didn't favor UTA were games that ended early due to run-rule. The Mavericks played in 11 games that finished prior to seven innings due to a lopsided score. They only won three of them, and none after March 5th. It would appear that UTA plays well in close games, but loses focus when the opponents score a few runs early or in bunches.


Within the SBC, UTA's fifth-place was a game-back of South Alabama. Remember that DH loss to App? UTA won the season series against the Jaguars. Had UTA won one of those two games to a previously winless squad, they would have been tied USA and secured the fourth seed. That would have been big due to how the conference tournament format is done.


The top eight team in the conference standings make the tournament. The last half of those teams play a single elimination game. In the Mavs case, they will play the eight-seed as the fifth seed. Every team will play their ace in an effort to win the game and advance, rather than end their season. The winner then plays the third and fourth seed on the same day. That means the better seeded team will have a staff ace waiting for the lower seeded teams second-pitcher.


For UTA, that is big. Sam Clakley, the ace of the staff, pitched the first and third game of every conference series. Her record against Sun Belt opponents was 11-7. Factoring out her 1-4 start to the conference slate, she was a stellar 10-3 to end the season. Sam Montes and Mariah Denson were next two that pitched and there was no consistency in their performance, unless you say they were consistently up and down. Montes was 1-3 in Sun Belt play. Denson was 2-2. In games Montes started, the team was 4-4, meaning she received a no decision in half the games she pitched. The team was 0-2 in Denson starts.


I'm confident the Mavs can compete against anyone in the conference with Clakley on the mound. The Sophomore has matured tremendously as the season has progressed, especially the later phases of conference play. I think she has the real potential to leave her name in the UTA record book many times over.


But after her, my confidence level drops tremendously. Had UTA won one of those App games, they would be set up well for the first day. Yes, they are in Louisiana's side of the bracket, and as far as I'm concerned, it is their tournament to lose. But were the Mavericks the fourth seed, set up against the lower-seeded team's second pitcher, I'd feel much more comfortable. The winner of the fourth-seed versus winner of 5 vs. 8 ends the day and would face Louisiana with their ace the next day. The winner of that game is then done for the day and so on until the conference championship game.


UTA's opponent to open the 2017 SBC softball tournament is the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, with a 32-22 record on the year, but a 10-16 showing in the Sun Belt. UTA swept the Chants in the regular season, but the games were close, 4-3, 2-0 and 8-5. Allan Saxe Field was also the venue, while the tournament will be a neutral site in Troy, Alabama. The game is scheduled to start at 10 a.m.

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