Each McNeese State softball player possesses a binder filled with notes and scouting reports, its cover boldly emblazoned with “ASA Hall of Fame Stadium” and the dates June 2-8.
The time and location of this year’s Women’s College World Series serves as a reminder of the desired end game for the best season in program history. It’s a lofty goal for the Cowgirls, who have never advanced to a super regional, but one coach Joanna Hardin wholeheartedly embraces.
“A lot of small schools don’t talk about going to Oklahoma City because they’re scared to. And we’re not,” Hardin said in a phone interview Tuesday. “That has been the goal of ours; that has been something we talk about shooting for.”
The first step toward achieving that milestone lies about two hours east of Lake Charles at Tiger Park, the site of this weekend’s Baton Rouge regional. There, second-seeded McNeese (42-12) will face No. 3 seed Arizona State (30-24) at 3 p.m. Friday to begin just its fourth appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Win or lose, the Cowgirls on Saturday will be pitted against either LSU, seeded 10th nationally, or fourth-seeded Long Island University Brooklyn, which play Game 2 of the double-elimination regional at 6 p.m. Friday.
But they’re not thinking about that — not yet, at least.
“The most important game is at 3 o’clock against Arizona State,” senior pitcher/first baseman Emily Vincent said. “We’re really focused on that game, and whatever happens from here happens.”
Host LSU is the only team in the regional more familiar with Tiger Park than McNeese, which Hardin and her players consider a serious advantage. They’ve played there numerous times, be it their yearly home-and-away series with the Tigers, fall scrimmages or camps attended by local players in their younger days.
Hardin said the Cowgirls’ experiences in Tiger Park will ward off any feelings of being “star-struck,” but for the players, it’s even simpler than that.
“I think being comfortable on a field and knowing the dirt, the foul lines and everything — being comfortable with something is important,” Vincent said. “If you’re out of your comfort zone, then normally you feel off.”
McNeese last traveled to Baton Rouge on April 26, though Vincent quipped she felt like the game happened a year ago.
LSU won the game 5-2, jumping on Vincent for three runs in the first inning via five consecutive hits. Tigers ace Carley Hoover threw a two-hitter, and the Cowgirls didn’t help their cause with a pair of costly errors.
“We kind of got out of our mindset at the plate,” said sophomore catcher Erika Piancastelli, who is tied for the second-most home runs nationally with 21. “We just have to stick to our game plan and to our approach on defense and in the box.”
McNeese quickly fixed those lapses.
The Cowgirls reeled off nine straight wins to close the season, including a run to their fourth Southland Conference tournament title. That streak helped them break the school record for single-season victories.
Vincent even got her first taste a of championship situation, pitching a two-hit complete game against Lamar to clinch the title.
“I’ve never been a part of a program where a team is like this,” Hardin said. “They genuinely cheer for each other. They’re more excited about their teammates’ success than their own. So I think that’s kind of a little extra factor for us beyond the tangibles of pitching, defense and offense.”
Despite outscoring its three tournament opponents 21-8, McNeese committed three errors in each game. Hardin said the team is focusing a little more on defense this week, but she’s not magnifying preparation just because it’s the postseason.
The Cowgirls’ “one day at a time” approach has gotten them this far, and their longed-for destination — spelled out on the front of their binders — remains within reach.
“We’re not afraid,” Hardin said. “You never know how far you’re going to go unless you’re willing to think big and dream big and go for it.”