This time last year, the Maryville College softball team was full of starry-eyed kids happy to have another weekend to play the sport they love on the biggest stage of their lives.
This week, that same group is focused, relaxed and expecting big things. The Scots believe they can take the NCAA Tournament by storm.
Maryville will face Trine University at 2 p.m. today in the first round of an NCAA regional in Greencastle, Ind. The Scots (28-9) and Thunder (30-6) join host Depauw and Saint Vincent College in the four-team double-elimination tournament that will be contested through Sunday.
This is Maryville’s fourth appearance in the NCAA Tournament. It’s the first time the Scots have gone in back-to-back seasons and the first time any Maryville player will compete in their second NCAA Tournament.
“Last year it was new so it was exciting,” coach Leah Kelley said. “This year we’ve been there and done that. That’s a huge advantage for us. We have a very experienced team. They’re really relaxed right now and they’re having fun.
“I’ve coached teams that you have to be hard on constantly for them to be successful. This team you just have to let their talent show out and let them have fun and play ball. It’s showing.”
It has shown so much that the Scots have won 14 of their last 15 games, including a 5-0 run through the USA South Athletic Conference Tournament. With two-straight conference tournament titles to their name, the Scots have proven themselves as the cream of the crop on in the region.
The next challenge is to prove they belong on the national stage. Friday’s game against Trine presents a perfect opportunity to do that.
While Maryville feels confident, in part, because it is returning to the postseason for a second consecutive year, Friday’s opponent is making its 12th consecutive trip. That run includes World Series appearances in 2014 and 2017.
This season Trine is ranked No. 7 in the final national poll. The Thunder earned one of 20 at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. They rank fifth in the nation in home runs per game with 39 in 36 games and 20th in runs per game at seven.
“We know the competition we’re about to have,” Maryville senior catcher Alexus Murray said. “We know Trine is a good team. They make it far every year in the tournament. Everyone around here is playing relaxed. We are having fun at this point. We play our best ball when we’re relaxed and having fun. I think everyone knows we can do it.”
That was not the case heading into the NCAA Tournament last season. The Scots defeated Emory in the opener but lost to Berry 7-1 in the second game. Kelley said she noticed they were overwhelmed with emotion.
That won’t be the case this time around. The Scots expect their experience to give them a chance of reaching the goal they’ve had since last season ended — win a regional title.
“Now it’s an expectation to get here and play in the regional tournament,” Murray said. “Last year we didn’t know what it was about or what we were going into because we had never gone that far. This year we know what it is and we know what our competition is.
“We know the best way to handle it is to stay relaxed, play as a team and play for each other.”