After squeezing into the Ohio Valley Conference tournament on the final weekend of the regular season, the Southeast Missouri State softball team hopes to make some noise in an underdog role.
The fifth-seeded Redhawks (25-26) begin the six-team double-elimination event today with a 10 a.m. game against fourth-seeded Tennessee-Martin (31-20) in Jacksonville, Ala.
A victory puts Southeast into a 2:30 p.m. contest against host and top seed Jacksonville State (40-14), the OVC regular-season champion which received a first-round bye. A loss puts the Redhawks into Friday's 12:15 p.m. elimination contest.
Today's final opening-round matchup pits No. 3 Samford (26-24) against No. 6 Eastern Kentucky (22-28) at 12:15 p.m. Receiving the other first-round bye is No. 2 Tennessee Tech (32-26).
The tournament concludes Saturday with the 12:15 p.m. championship game. The winner receives an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
"I believe this is a very wide open tournament, and we're ready to go," Southeast coach Lana Richmond said.
Southeast lost two of three regular-season meetings with Tennessee-Martin during a road series, falling 5-2 and 2-0, and winning 6-3.
While the Skyhawks have a strong hitting team -- they rank third in the OVC with a .269 average, just ahead of Southeast's .258 mark -- Richmond believes freshman pitcher Elaine Fisher will have a solid chance to neutralize their bats.
Fisher (7-5), who leads the OVC with a 1.32 earned-run average -- including a 0.38 mark in conference play -- did not join the regular rotation until midway through the season, after the Redhawks and Skyhawks already had met.
"We're going to go with Elaine because they only saw her a couple of innings," Richmond said. "Tennessee-Martin is a power-hitting team, and the answer to that is a low-ball pitcher, which Elaine is."
If the Redhawks get past Tennessee-Martin, they'll meet up with Jacksonville State, which dominated the league in the regular season, led by an offense that topped the conference in hitting (.303), home runs (58) and runs scored (1,452).
Jacksonville State easily swept a three-game home series from Southeast, romping 5-0, 7-2 and 4-0.
"They're a really good team, but there's not one dominating pitcher in our conference this year, that why I think we have a chance," Richmond said. "The key is to get consistent outings on the mound. I feel we've hit well most of the year, and if we can score two or three runs for our pitchers, we'll be in good shape."