Four NCAA Div. III championships
PELLA — A tournament-tested field will assemble at Central College for an NCAA Division III softball championship regional Friday through Sunday.
Central College was awarded a record 26th NCAA tourney berth and will serve as host for a four-team regional. The Dutch (30-10) open against North Central College (Ill.) (29-11) at 3:30 p.m. Friday at the A.N. Kuyper Athletics Complex field. In the day’s first game, Iowa Conference tournament champion Luther College (30-6), the regional’s top seed, meets Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.) (30-15) at 1 p.m.
All four teams were also in last year’s tournament field. The Dutch have been selected for the fifth straight season.
Play continues in the double-elimination tournament with three games Saturday and a championship game Sunday, with an additional Sunday game if necessary.
New format--The 62-team national field was announced Monday morning, and will utilize a new format, with teams competing at 16 regional sites. There are 14 regionals with four teams and two regionals with three teams. The 16 regional champs will be sent to eight super regional sites for a best two-of-three series May 16-17 to determine the eight teams advancing to the NCAA Division III finals at Tyler, Texas May 22-27.
In the super regional, the winner of the regional at Central will meet the winner of a regional played at Iowa Conference rival Coe College. The Kohawks (35-8) will meet St. Scholastica (Minn.) (27-10) Friday and will be joined in Cedar Rapids by Augustana (Ill.) (33-11) and St. Thomas (Minn.) (36-5).
“I think the new format maybe makes it a little easier for everybody,” Central coach George Wares said. “If you do stub your toe and lose the first game, coming back is easier than it is in an eight-team regional, where it’s such a long road back.
“I loved the excitement of an eight-team bracket,” Wares said. “It was sort of like a mini-national tournament with all the teams in one place. But with four great teams, it will still be a great atmosphere here this weekend.”
The quality of the teams should assure that, Wares said.
“Obviously it’s a pretty veteran field in terms of the coaches and the teams’ tournament experience,” he said. “This isn’t new to anybody in this regional and hopefully that means very good softball. The fans should see some very competitive games.”
On the air and online--A live video webcast of each regional game at Pella and live stats can be viewed through the Central athletics website at http://www.central.edu/athletics/live/. Central’s games will also be broadcast on KRLS-FM (92.1) or KNIA-AM (1320) with veteran sportscaster Trevor Castle and streamed through www.kniakrls.com. Audio play-by-play will be offered with the video webcasts.
Regional tourney website—More tournament information including box scores and interviews will be available throughout the weekend at the tourney website.
NFCA rankings—In last week’s National Fastpitch Coaches Association Division III top 25 coaches’ poll, Luther is rated No. 11, Central is tied for No. 13, North Central is among those also receiving votes and Washington-St. Louis is unranked. Meanwhile, Coe is rated No. 9, St. Thomas is No. 15, Augustana is No. 19 and St. Scholastica is unranked.
Tournament veterans—Luther is in the field for the 15th time while Washington-St. Louis and North Central are making their 12th appearances.
Ithaca (N.Y.) is the only school in the U.S. to match Central’s 26 berths. Central is the only team among the four in the regional with a national title—the Dutch have won four NCAA softball crowns (1988, 1991, 1993, 2003), while placing second twice (1986, 2001) and have made 13 trips to the national finals. They have an 88-49 overall tournament record. Both Luther and Central gained berths in the eight-team national finals at Eau Claire, Wis. in 2013, where the Dutch tied for seventh.
Home field--This is the 11th time Central has played host to an NCAA regional and the fourth year in a row. Central was also the site of the 1992 national finals.
The Dutch played 17 games at home this season, the most they’ve ever played there in the regular season. They were 14-3 in those games. Central played 17 neutral-site games this year and, in a scheduling quirk, just six road games.
2014 meetings—Central is 3-4 against teams in this year’s national field and 2-1 against teams in this weekend’s Pella regional. The Dutch lost a pair of games in March in Tucson, Ariz. to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (Calif.). They defeated Washington-St. Louis in Pella March 29, 3-2. At Luther April 8, Central was defeated 4-3 before winning 6-5. April 22 at Pella the Dutch also split with Coe, tumbling 5-3 but prevailing 2-1.
Series records—Friday’s game will be only Central’s second meeting ever with North Central. The Dutch were 9-0 winners in five innings when the teams played in Tucson, Ariz. in 2011. Central holds a 47-30 advantage in its all-time series with Luther and has a 10-3 edge over Washington-St. Louis.
The winningest coach—Central’s victory in the second game of a twinbill at Luther April 8 was the 1,000th for Wares. He’s the first Division III coach to ever reach that milestone and he’s compiled a 1,007-333-3 (.750) mark in 30 seasons with the Dutch. Wares also has the most NCAA tournament appearances for any Division III coach with 26 over the past 29 years.
North Central—Jim Kulawiak is in his 26th season as head coach at North Central, compiling a 719-312-3 record. Located in Naperville, Ill., North Central boasts a .317 team batting average. Sophomore outfielder Amanda Walker is batting .410 with six homers and 36 RBIs while junior third baseman Kayla Antle is hitting .375 with a team-high 36 runs scored. Senior pitcher Vlasta Mangia is 10-5 with a .179 earned run average while sophomore Andrea Starr is 13-5 with a 2.36 ERA.
“They’ve got two solid pitchers and they swing the bat well,” Wares said. “Their league (the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin) is very good. They had three (NCAA tournament bids) just like the Iowa Conference. This will be very comparable to playing another tough Iowa Conference game.”
Dutch numbers—Central has put up some of its best offensive numbers ever. The Dutch have a .350 team batting mark, just .003 behind the season record set in 1993. Central’s 30 homers shattered the school mark of 25 set in 2011. The Dutch have rolled up their usual lopsided advantage in stolen bases with 97-13 and need just three thefts to reach the century mark for the 18th time.
Third baseman Whitney Sowers (junior, Marshalltown) is hitting .490 and, remarkably, that reflects a bit of a recent decline. She was batting well over .500 before suffering an injury April 9, but is gradually returning to full strength. She has 51 hits with five homers and 22 RBIs.
Sowers teams with senior shortstop Annie Sarcone (Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS) to form one of Division III’s most formidable defensive left sides, according to Wares. Sowers has committed just one error in 110 chances. Sarcone has also waged an assault on Central’s offensive records. She’s hitting .417 with 14 doubles, seven homers and a school record 51 RBIs. She’s also stolen 13 bases. On the school career list, Sarcone is first in homers (25), RBIs (172) and total bases (304). She’s fourth in runs (122) and seventh in hits (182). Defensively she’s tied for fifth in double plays (30) and seventh in assists (338).
With another year to go in her Dutch career, Sowers is tied for sixth on Central’s career home run charts (11), is eighth in doubles (30), 13th in total bases (212) and 10th in double plays (18).
Catcher Katie Canney (junior, Adel, ADM HS), who transferred to Central in January, 2013, is ninth in career home runs (10). Second baseman Abbey Strajack (junior, Davenport, Assumption HS) is tied for 15th in career hits (144).
Pitching trio—Central gets significant innings from all three of its pitchers. Junior Mallory Schulenberg (Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS), an NFCA all-America honoree a year ago is one of five Central players who spent the fall semester in Europe through Central College Abroad. Schulenberg participated in Central’s London program. She’s 11-6 with a 2.92 ERA. Schulenberg ranks 13th in school history in career wins (37), 12th in shutouts (9) and 17th in strikeouts (194).
Trisha Smith (sophomore, New Hampton), on the junior varsity a year ago, emerged to shoulder much of this year’s load with a 13-2 mark and a 2.05 ERA while recording team-highs in innings (116.1) and strikeouts (107).
Meanwhile the team’s lowest ERA, 1.62, belongs to senior Brie Haycraft (Eldridge, North Scott HS), who is 6-2 while working primarily as a relief specialist. She has two saves and a school record 11 saves in her career.
National stat rankings—Central ranks No. 10 in Division III in stolen bases per game (2.43), is 23rd in double plays turned (0.43) and 30th in runs per game (6.75).
Sowers ranks 11th nationally in on-base percentage (.568) and 21st in batting average (.490). Sarcone is 15th in RBIs per game (1.28).
All-infield all-conference—Central had five infielders named to the all-Iowa Conference squad. Sowers and Sarcone were both first-team picks. Sarcone was honored for the fourth straight year and Sarcone for the third time. Canney, Strajack and first baseman Kaitlyn Matzen (junior, Manly, Central Springs HS) were second-team picks. In addition, designated player Karlee Rock (junior, Wheatland, Calamus-Wheatland HS) received honorable mention.
Second chance—The tournament berth is an opportunity for the Dutch to rebound from a disappointing Iowa Conference tourney showing at Cedar Rapids last weekend. Central, which tied for second place in the league with a 10-4 mark, was a quick 0-2 at the tourney, with a 7-4 loss to Buena Vista Friday and a 5-4 setback against Dubuque Saturday. In both games Central held leads late in the game but gave up big innings, with a five-run seventh inning Friday and a four-run fifth on Saturday.
“Our pitchers didn’t really struggle for the most part, but in both games we had one bad inning and that magnifies everything,” Wares said. “I’m not sure that we pitched as badly as it seemed.”
North Central had a similar finish, also dropping two straight games in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin tourney.
Regardless, Wares doesn’t think the losses will have much of an effect on this week’s results for either club. And he notes that there is an advantage in the early exit, as the Dutch will be well-rested, having only played twice.
“We did not play very well,” he said. “But I don’t think last week has anything to do with this week, either positively or negatively. It’s more about how well we prepare. We need to refocus for our second season, which is something we’ve talked about all year. You just have to hope you get on a roll.”
That won’t be easy given the opposition.
“It’s not just coach-speak when I say there are no bad teams here,” Wares said. “Any one of the four could win it. It’s going to be extremely competitive. It comes down to the team that plays the best and catches a break or two.”
But admittedly, being back in the tournament field is a mental boost, not that a team with 30 wins should need one.
“When you lose two like we did, temporarily you almost feel like the season’s over,” Wares said. “But when you see your name on the screen, it feels really good. To be hosting is obviously a bonus.”
NCAA Division III Regional at Pella, Iowa
Friday, May 9
Game 1--1 p.m. #1 Luther College (30-6) vs. #4 Washington Univ.-St. Louis (Mo.) (30-15)
Game 2--3:30 p.m. #2 Central College (30-10) vs. #3 North Central College (Ill.) (29-11)
Saturday, May 10
Game 3--11 a.m. Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2
Game 4—1:30 p.m. Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2
Game 5—4 p.m. Winner Game 4 vs. Loser Game 3
Sunday, May 11
Game 6—1 p.m. Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5
Game 7—3:30 p.m. Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 (if necessary)
$6 adults, $3 students, $2 preschool children, $15 all-tournament pass
NCAA Division III tournament history
Team Yrs.* W L Pct. National titles
Central 26 88 49 .642 4
Luther 15 36 31 .537 0
Washington-St. Louis 12 23 22 .511 0
North Central (Ill.) 12 16 24 .400 0