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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

By Bethany Bradsher

Still knocking on that postseason door

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

WANTED: Blueprints to an escape route through the Division I glass ceiling. All traditional tools (numerous victories, strong schedules, national rankings) have been tried and found ineffective.

Ladder through the glass barrier MUST lead to national postseason tournament. If you can help, please contact the East Carolina softball and soccer teams.

If you measure by large steps, there was plenty to celebrate this season about ECU softball. Freshman Toni Paisley made a big statement with seven C-USA Pitcher-of-the-Week honors. The Pirates won two towering tournament trophies in the first month of the season. And they prevailed in a resounding 40 games.

As it turns out, though, it was the small steps back accompanying the large steps forward that cost the Lady Pirates (40-15) the postseason bid they seemed destined to claim. In just a few days, they went from a No. 2 C-USA seed with the world at their feet to another group of college students with post-exam downtime.

With 13 years as a head coach under her belt, head softball coach Tracey Kee has acute perspective on the instability of win-loss records and the capriciousness of tournament selection committees. In the past decade, Kee has led five squads to records exceeding 50 wins, and only one of those teams made the NCAA field.

But this year seemed even more promising, in large part because of ECU’s success in C-USA play. The Lady Pirates won 19 conference games in the regular season, the most since ECU joined the conference seven years ago.

Heading into the C-USA tournament two weeks ago, they seemed to hold a clear advantage over their opponents from Texas-El Paso, the home team and a No. 7 seed. But UTEP capitalized on its strengths and its home crowd and battled the Pirates to a 4-3 win in 13 innings.

That one run became one of the biggest small things to trip up the team. When a team is little known, the conference tournament carries an inordinate amount of weight come selection time, but ECU players and boosters still held out hope for good news on that Sunday night.

Besides that UTEP loss, the Pirates’ postseason hopes were derailed by other one-run losses, most notably two defeats at the hands of North Carolina, a 2-1 loss to Notre Dame and a 1-0 loss to Michigan when the Wolverines were ranked No. 4 nationally.

Kee’s theory, shared by others who have followed the program closely, is that if just one of those squeakers had come out in the Pirates’ favor they would have continued their campaign.

The most concrete answer to the postseason puzzle is, of course, the automatic bid. Six months ago, the women’s soccer team won 12 games in a row and marched through its C-USA tournament until the final game, when it lost to Memphis. Despite an exemplary season and an overall record of 14-4-4, these Lady Pirates also failed to secure an at-large bid, and the selection committee cited insufficient strength of schedule.

Teams like softball and soccer are close to knocking through that ceiling and finding themselves on the right side of the tournament bubble. If they can win their conference tournaments, it will assure them their rightful place in a bracket and, like the C-USA champion football team this year, elevate their profile nationally.

But even if tournament trophies are the clearest road to the postseason, both women’s soccer and softball have tournament structures with only 30 automatic bids and 34 at-large slots. That leaves an extraordinary margin of interpretation for selection committees, and Pirate squads seem to get almost no benefit of the doubt.

In contrast, take schools like Mississippi State, which received an at-large bid with a 28-26 overall record, even though its 8-19 conference record wasn’t even enough to qualify for the SEC Tournament. Auburn, likewise, finished the regular season 29-27 and 9-19 in the SEC and got a shot at the postseason.

But the most puzzling opportunity may have fallen at the feet of Jacksonville State, a school of about 9,400 in Alabama and an at-large selection for the NCAA tournament.

The JSU Gamecocks’ record? 39-13, almost identical to ECU’s. Their conference tournament success? They lost in the second round of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament to Tennessee-Martin. Strength of schedule? They beat Ole Miss twice during the season, but lost to Alabama, Auburn, Louisville and Georgia Tech.

The Lady Pirates, in contrast, lost by one run to three big programs and also fell to Alabama. But a committee looking for big Division I wins could take their pick from wins over Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida State, Indiana, N.C. State and Virginia Tech.

It turns out that Jacksonville State was no flash in the pan: The Lady Gamecocks are on their way to a Super Regional. But the Pirates should have gotten a chance to follow a similar road. Maybe next season they’ll string together enough big steps to charge down that road unencumbered.

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05/20/2009 03:33:24 AM

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