The Wildcats began last week in third place with a 14-8 record vs. the conference, but on Tuesday night they lost the rubber match at No. 15 Angelo State and then dropped two of three at Midwestern State. These defeats combined with victories posted by West Texas A&M and Tarleton State dropped the Wildcats (29-15, 15-11 LSC) to fifth, which means they'll have to fight through the upper half of the bracket to reach Saturday night's title game.
The conference championship, which now follows a single-elimination format, begins Friday, April 27, with four quarterfinal games scheduled to be played at 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m., and 7 p.m. The Wildcats will meet fourth-seed and defending conference champion West Texas A&M in the 4:30 p.m. game, and if they come out ahead, will then advance to the second of two Saturday semifinals (2:30 p.m.) against either top-seed Angelo State or eighth-seed Cameron.
The conference championship will be decided Saturday at 6 p.m. The weekend weather forecast for Denton calls for partly sunny skies with highs in the low 80s.
The Wildcats' tournament appearance is their first since 2009 when they lost consecutive games to Angelo State in the finals held at Poly Wells Field by scores of 8-3 and 13-5. The Rambelles also captured the 2008 title over the Wildcats, 11-6, and in 2006, ACU was foiled by Midwestern State, 5-1.
The Wildcats also reached the championship game of the inaugural conference tournament held in 1997, and were edged by Southeastern Oklahoma, 5-3.
But everything that's taken place at the tournament in year's past might as well be ancient history to this pack of Wildcats and their coaching staff, since only one player - Brianna Fowlkes - was part of the 2009 roster. Everyone else, however, is mostly brand new and its because of the way they've played throughout the season that ACU is back in contention for a shot at the conference title.
Going into the 2012 campaign - a year removed from being eliminated on the final day for postseason competition - second-year head coach Bobby Reeves turned his lineup almost completely over to his newcomers. At the top are speedy outfielders Keanna Winkfield and Madison Buckley, followed by the consistent bat and golden glove of shortstop Sara Vaughn in the No. 3 spot. Kim Briggs - an import from Sacramento City College - readily assumed cleanup duties and so far has responded with seven home runs, tying her with Lyndi Smith for the team lead.
Another newcomer, Courtney Flanary, has given the Wildcats productive at-bats up and down the order and is currently second on the team in hitting with a .351 batting average. In fact, of the six ACU regulars who are hitting .300 or better this season, five of them are in their first year as Wildcats.
In the circle, junior transfer Caitlyn Crain has done an excellent job filling the void left by 14-game winner Brittany Rexroat by leading the Wildcats in victories (13), strikeouts (65), and earned-run average (2.30). She also gives ACU a more experienced rotation as she splits starting duties with sophomore Peyton Mosley (11-7) and junior Shelby Hall (5-2). As a result, the Wildcats have led the conference in ERA (2.41) for much of the season.
ACU will have to continue to receive great pitching in order to survive the tournament, and perhaps recall how good it was when the Wildcats won three straight against West Texas by scores of 6-1, 4-2, and 2-0. Mosley was the winning pitcher in games one and three, and her shutout of the Lady Buffs was her third of the season. Crain, meanwhile, struck out three in the game two victory, which was her 10th of the year.
Mosley earned conference pitcher of the week honors after shutting down one of the conference's most prolific offenses, as she allowed just seven Lady Buff hits in 14.0 innings of work while striking out 13.
On offense that weekend, Smith paced the Wildcats with a .571 batting average and a solo home run, while Vaughn hit .500 and drew six of the team's 13 walks. By comparison, Mosley and Crain combined to issue just five free passes.
The ACU defense was solid all the way around as well, committing just one error through 83 chances (.988).
But since that unexpected series sweep, the Wildcats have hovered around mediocrity (6-6) by carelessly losing winnable games against Eastern New Mexico and Cameron, and getting beaten down early in two games vs. the Mustangs. Even in the series against Angelo State, the Wildcats twice were a clutch hit away from taking the lead late in the ball game, only to see the Rambelles take off down the stretch.
ACU eventually snapped out of its slumber with an eight-run outburst against MSU on the final day of the regular season, which is hopefully a sign for good things to come this weekend in the Metroplex. The win snapped a season-worst four-game losing streak for the Wildcats.
All championship games will be played at Pioneer Field, located between the TWU Golf Course and the University Chancellor's residence on the northet side of the TWU campus.
Daily ticket prices will be $8.00 for adults and $5.00 for students. Children five and under will be admitted free of charge. Tickets will go on sale 90 minutes before the first game of each day.
For fans that can't make it out to the games, all of the tournament action will be broadcast online via a free live webcast. The webcast will include both video and audio with viewers needing only a computer with a high-speed DSL or cable modem connection to the internet. The webcasts can be viewed at lonestarconference.org. Saturday night's championship game will also be carried on foxsportssouthwest.com.