The Southeastern Conference softball tournament can serve a variety of purposes for the 12 teams participating at Tiger Park.
For anyone unable to land an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, it provides an opportunity to grab an automatic bid if they can manage an improbable four-day championship run beginning Wednesday.
For anyone on the proverbial bubble for the NCAAs, it provides an opportunity to strengthen their résumé for the selection committee when it chooses the field Sunday night, just as it does for teams bound for the postseason but seeking a higher seed and possible home-field advantage.
And even for those confident of a national seed already, it provides an opportunity to sharpen itself for an NCAA run by competing against the strongest softball field this side of Oklahoma City, site of the Women’s College World Series.
“To me,” LSU coach Beth Torina said, “other than the College World Series, it’s really the premiere event in college softball, having that many ranked teams competing together in one tournament.”
Nine of the 12 teams participating were ranked in the latest national polls released Tuesday. The lowest-seeded team in the tournament (Kentucky) is ranked 24th and 25th.
“Every team we play from here on out is going to be a top-10 or top 25-caliber team,” Tigers shortstop Bianka Bell said.
The tourney gets started with eight first-round games Wednesday, which will send the four losers home and the four winners into the quarterfinals against the top four seeds, who have first-round byes.
“I’m sure all coaches look at it a little differently,” said South Carolina coach Beverly Smith, whose ninth-seeded team plays eighth-seeded Texas A&M at 4 p.m. Wednesday. “But from South Carolina’s perspective, it’s about coming in and being able to play another ranked opponent.
“I don’t think anything prepares you for the NCAA tournament more than going through this tournament. I look at it as an opportunity for another top win that can help our seeding and our postseason direction.”
South Carolina has been trending upward by winning each of its last four SEC series.
The top four seeds — Florida, Auburn, Alabama and LSU — are strong contenders to be national seeds.
“I feel like the SEC tournament in a way is like a regional,” LSU outfielder A.J. Andrews said. “The SEC is one of the top conferences in the country. Every single team here is a tough competitor. I think this is just setting the tone for the regionals and super regionals.”
The SEC has sent 11 teams to the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons. No. 11 seed Ole Miss is the only team here that doesn’t have an RPI in the top 32.
“I think all 12 teams deserve to go the NCAAs because of the competition that they’ve got to play,” said Auburn’s Clint Myers, who was named SEC Coach of the Year on Tuesday. “When you look at the records, they’re phenomenal. In the SEC, we’re preparing for postseason every weekend in conference. There easily could be four, five or six teams that wind up in the College World Series.”
For the highest seeds, what happens in the SEC tournament won’t have a tangible effect on their postseason fortunes.
“I keep telling the girls, this week’s about pride and guts,” Torina said. “We’re trying to win this thing just out of our own pride. Obviously a lot of teams in this are already qualified for the postseason, they’ll already be playing again next week. But I think it’s our own pride trying to make sure that we win this thing on our own field and have a good showing.”
The atmosphere will also be a useful precursor to what lies ahead in the NCAA tournament.
“I think the atmosphere here is going to be unreal,” Andrews said. “All the fans in the SEC love to tailgate. They have very strong voices, everyone is very loud. They’re very proud of their schools. So to have 12 different teams, 12 different groups of proud fans here cheering on their teams, I think is just going to be a really intense atmosphere unlike anything else.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.