The Southwestern Athletic Conference softball tournament provides Southern with an opportunity to start over after a poor finish to the regular season.
That could be good news for the Jaguars, because they’ve managed a dramatic turnaround once already.
They overcame an early-season coaching change and a 0-23 start to win nine of 12 and claim second place in the ernWest Division to qualify for the tournament for the first time in three years.
“This is huge,” catcher Harley Roller said. “As a senior, you want to go out with a bang.”
Roller, who’s batting .287 with three home runs and 20 RBIs as the cleanup hitter, was sidelined by injury during Southern’s last appearance during her freshman season three years ago. The Jaguars won three out of four games before losing to Mississippi Valley 6-2 to fall one win short of the final.
They meet Valley again in their opening game at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Decatur, Alabama. Freshman Kayleigh Thomas (6-18, 7.37 ERA) will start for Southern.
The Jaguars and the Delta Devils, the defending tournament champions, met once during the regular season when Valley prevailed 3-2 in the SWAC Roundup on March 22 in Longview, Texas. That dropped Southern to 0-21.
But the late-season push brought the Jaguars to 10-34 overall and 8-9 in the SWAC.
The Devils are 11-34 and 9-8 after finishing an uncharacteristic third in the East.
Southern’s late-season hot streak was followed by a four-game losing stream to conclude the regular season. The Jaguars were run-ruled 8-0 at McNeese State on April 24 before getting swept at Texas Southern by a combined score of 43-13 over the next two days.
“That was one of those weekends where we were not our best,” Southern interim coach Tayl’r Hollis said. “We can’t afford to not be our best. We didn’t pitch well so we couldn’t keep runs off the board. We didn’t play our game. That’s the bottom line. When you don’t play your game you don’t win.”
Hollis said Thomas and her other top pitcher — fellow freshman Sara Miller — showed signs of mental and physical fatigue at the end.
“We’ve been riding their arms all year,” Hollis said. “I could see they were tired when they sat down in the dugout. I told them it wasn’t a good time to be tired and that they had to push through it.”
Hollis gave the duo some down time from pitching to work on their cardio during the 10-day break before the start of the tournament. She said she expected the extended break to be beneficial to the entire team.
“I think it’s a very good time for us to fix the things that we need to fix,” Hollis said. “It’s really good to be able to sit back and breathe and focus on one game. Subconsciously they went out there loose and they forgot to compete and play that gritty game that we had been playing. I think that was a huge contribution to those losses. We forgot that we have to keep fighting.
“I think it was a wake-up call for them in terms of, ‘OK, we can’t start coasting and enjoy being mediocre.’ We have to strive for perfection every time we go on the field and that last weekend I think they just weren’t there.”
Jaguars freshman outfielder Sydney Wesley, who batted a team-best .373, was named the All-SWAC first team Tuesday.
The winner of the Southern-Valley game will play the winner of the Jackson State-Grambling game at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, and the losers of those two games will meet in an elimination game 21/2 hours later. The championship game will be played at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and be televised on ESPNU.
“I’m pretty excited being a freshman and being able to go,” Thomas said, “but it’s a big tournament for all of us. I think it’s a big accomplishment for us.”