Two years ago, the Seattle University softball team came oh so close to making it to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
This year, the Redhawks left no doubt. They cruised to the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title, then won three straight games in the WAC tournament to make it to the big show.
Not only do the Redhawks (39-15) enter the NCAA tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, having won 15 of their past 16 games, they get to start in Seattle as one of four teams in the regional hosted by Washington (45-7).
Seattle U, the third seed in the three-day regional, plays Mississippi State (33-21) on Friday at 4:30 p.m. at Husky Softball Stadium. UW, the top seed in the regional and the No. 3 overall seed, opens against Fordham (29-24) at 7 p.m. Friday.
The Redhawks aren’t just happy to be in the tournament. They want to make a statement.
“It’s been a great ride, but we’re not done yet,” said Seattle U coach Geoff Hirai, a one-time UW assistant who is in his fourth season with the Redhawks. “We’re pretty motivated.”
In 2017, the Redhawks were a half-inning from winning the WAC tournament title, leading 14-11 going to the bottom of the seventh inning against New Mexico State. But the Aggies scored four times to spoil Seattle U’s dream, which makes this year’s achievement even more satisfying.
“That was a heartbreaker, but it made them stronger,” Hirai said. “It made our program stronger. You kind of have to fail before you succeed and they had to learn how to cut things at the pass, meaning when things are going bad, you just own it and move on.”
The key to Seattle U’s success is great pitching depth, with sophomore Carley Nance (17-8) from Tahoma High School, senior Andie Larkins (13-3) and sophomore Shianne Smith (9-4) all having success.
Offensively, it has been a group effort, with seemingly a different player coming through each week.
Sophomore Ally Choate from Yelm leads the team in batting average (.405). Sophomore catcher Bailey Thompson (12 homers, 40 runs batted in) and junior first baseman Madison Cathcart from Longview (11 homers, team-high 53 RBI) are the top power hitters.
Seattle U was 0-4 against Pac-12 teams this year, but didn’t lose any of those games by more than two runs. The Redhawks lost 1-0 at UW in March and they defeated fellow regional participant Fordham 11-3 in February.
“We didn’t win those games (against the Pac-12 schools), but we were right there,” Hirai said. “We were one play away, or one catch away from winning any of those games. Our players think, and know, that they can play with anyone in the nation.”
Hirai said he doesn’t know a lot about Mississippi State from the Southeastern Conference, other than the Bulldogs have a lot of power on offense. Hirai said he has not decided which pitcher will start against Mississippi State, but he knows who the crowd will be cheering for.
“We play there (at UW) every year, and we are going to have a ton of fans there,” he said. “There will be a lot of red and black in the stands and we play better when we have energy from the fans. We are just going to go for it this week.”