Southeast Missouri State softball living out dream as Redhawks prepare to face Louisiana-Lafayette in NCAA regional opener
It's a moment Haley Thogmartin and Mykaela Arellanes have dreamed about since they were youngsters watching the NCAA Tournament on television and hoping one day that would be them on the screen.
It took years of hard work, perseverance and trust in a vision for a downtrodden program, but that moment has arrived for the pair of seniors, and the rest of the Southeast Missouri State softball team. For the first time in 20 years, and second time in the program history, Southeast is playing in the NCAA Division I Tournament.
The Redhawks open play at 3:30 p.m. today against Louisiana-Lafayette in the Mississippi regional in Oxford, Mississippi.
In the midst of a season in which they set a program record for single-season wins, the Redhawks are now aiming for another first: a regional title.
"It's just been a magical season," said fifth-year Southeast coach Mark Redburn. "You go through the ups and downs in establishing what you want and what you believe in and trying to recruit the players who have that same vision and belief and buy in. It takes time. It's work. It's just like anything else. It doesn't necessarily happen overnight.
"To see it get to this point, especially for this first-year class that I recruited that are seniors now, and then all the classes underneath them, it's just special when you finally see the fruits of your labor really starting to pay off and really to come forth."
Southeast (45-16) is at this point thanks to its first Ohio Valley Conference Tournament title since 1999. That championship secured Southeast an automatic bid to the tournament, and Sunday they watched the selection show with bated breath. They were put in a regional with ULL (50-4), ranked in the top 10 in all three major polls, 11th-seeded and host Mississippi (37-17) and Chattanooga (37-15).
"Personally, it's always been a dream of mine to do a selection show and be in the selection show and go to a regional," Arellanes said. "So what better time to do it then your senior year when it could potentially be your last."
Arellanes, an outfielder, was named MVP of the OVC Tournament as Southeast emerged from the loser's bracket to beat Jacksonville State twice in one day and claim the title. Just like the OVC Tournament, Southeast has to lose twice in the NCAA regional to be eliminated.
"It just gives us confidence and knowledge that we can do it because a lot of people would think it's almost impossible to come through the loser's bracket and beat not only a team, but (a team) like Jacksonville, which had won the last three years," Arellanes said. "It gives us confidence, knowing that if it came down to having to beat a winner's bracket team twice, we know we can do it."
Thogmartin is the team's ace, a first-team all-conference selection who garnered National Fastpitch Coaches Association Division I All-Region honors Thursday, along with first baseman Ashley Ellis and center fielder Rachel Anderson.
Thogmartin enters the tournament with a 1.75 ERA and a 22-6 record with three saves, including one in the winner-take-all game in the conference tourney.
"It's pretty exciting," she said. "I never would have thought 10 years ago I would have been where I'm at."
Thogmartin isn't Southeast's only arm. Kaylee Anderson, Alexis Estes and Rachel Rook all pitched in the conference tournament, with Rook picking up the victory in the winner-take-all game.
Anderson, the OVC Player of the Year, leads the Redhawks at the plate with a .455 average, sixth in the nation. She's one of five Redhawks batting above .300, with Arellanes hitting .356 and Ellis batting .337 with a team-high 16 home runs.
"Our team is extremely balanced," Redburn said. "That's been one of the things that's led to our success this year. The pitching depth we had, and then obviously the offensive depth we've had, and our defense.
It's pretty exciting. I never would have thought 10 years ago I would have been where I'm at.
"Playing against Kansas a couple times this year, beating Arkansas at their place, and playing at Missouri twice, I think that's all good stuff that's given our players confidence."
This crop of five seniors -- Arellanes, Thogmartin, infielders Parker Bandy and Sarah Messex and regular pinch-runner Mackenzie Long -- committed to the program back when it was in the midst of six consecutive losing seasons. They too slogged through losing years, but their faith has been rewarded.
They will get to end their college careers living out their dream. They are now the players on the screen who little girls across the country hope to be one day.
The Ragin' Cajuns have the second-best winning percentage in the nation, trailing only No. 1 national seed Oklahoma. They are also second in the nation with a 1.37 ERA and fifth with a .338 batting average.
Junior Summer Ellyson is their ace with a 37-4 record, two saves and an 0.98 ERA in 249.1 innings pitched. No other pitcher on the staff has thrown more than 51 innings.
The Cajuns went 25-0 in the Sun Belt in the regular season and 3-0 in the conference tournament. Of their four losses, two came to ranked teams.
The program also has made six trips to the College World Series, most recently in 2014.
"They're there for a reason," Redburn said. "They're extremely talented. Historic program, well-coached. We're just going to go out there again and try to understand what we're going to see. We're going to try to be ready for what they're throwing against us.
"But at the same time we're going to try to make sure we can do what we can to play our game and try to create some havoc, maybe a little bit for them. You think about that, too. If they've been so successful, maybe they haven't been as experienced with having people on base as much."
Messex has watched some of ULL's games on television, and to her, the team is similar to the foe the Redhawks just vanquished.
"They kind of remind me a lot of Jacksonville State, one of those southern teams that's going to scratch and fight, and we're going to scratch and fight just as well," Messex said. "Have a lot of confidence after playing Jacksonville State and watching some of [ULL's] games. Don't get me wrong, it's not going be an easy game at all, but we're going to fight."
If Southeast wins today, it will face the winner of Ole Miss-Chatanooga. If the Redhawks lose, they drop into an elimination game against the loser of that contest.
The regional runs through Sunday.
Oxford (Miss.) Regional schedule
Winner advances to the Super Regionals
Game 1: Louisiana-Lafayette (50-4) vs. Southeast (45-16), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3
Game 2: No. 11 seed Mississippi (37-17) vs. Chattanooga (37-15), 6 p.m., ESPN3
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, Noon
Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2:30 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 5 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 2 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 4:30 p.m.
Aly Walker: .368 batting average, .464 on-base percentage, 5 home runs
Emily Coltharp: .346 average, .423 OBP, 0 homers
Emma Sturdivant: .339 average, .398 OBP, 4 homers
Allison Swinford: 15-10 record, 2 saves, 2.08 ERA in 174.2 innings pitched
Mariah Ramirez: 12-2, 1 save, 2.59 ERA in 97.1 IP
Alissa Dalton: .403 batting average, .489 on-base percentage, 4 home runs
Julie Rawls: .373 average, .520 OBP, 10 homers
Sarah Hudek: .350 average, .418 OBP, 11 homers
Summer Ellyson: 37-4 record, 2 saves, 0.98 ERA in 249.1 innings pitched
Carrie Boswell: 9-0, 0 saves, 1.35 ERA in 51 IP
Kylan Becker: .411 batting average, .472 on-base percentage, 1 home run
Abbey Latham: .335 average, .414 OBP, 8 homers
Tate Whitley: .302 average, .315 OBP, 0 homers
Molly Jacobsen: 13-6 record, 4 saves, 1.97 ERA in 145.1 innings pitched
Brittany Finney: 15-9 record, 1 save, 2.81 ERA in 129.2 IP
Rachel Anderson: .455 batting average, .553 on-base percentage, 13 home runs
Mykaela Arellanes: .356 average, .451 OBP, 8 homers
Addison Barnouski: .354 average, .422 OBP, 7 homers
Haley Thogmartin: 22-6 record, 3 saves, 1.75 ERA in 167.2 innings pitched
Rachel Rook: 10-4 record, 2 saves, 2.34 ERA in 83.2 IP