Winthrop and Coastal Carolina will play in the Big South softball championship at 2 p.m. today as the tournament gets underway in Conway on the CCU campus. The two teams have combined to win nearly half of the 23 conference championships -- Winthrop has six, Coastal five.
Coastal Carolina has played in more conference tournament games (83) than any other school while Winthrop is second with 74.
"Coastal is always a rival but it has to be one game at a time for us," Winthrop coach Mark Cooke said. "In the last month we have struggled a little bit to hit. If our hitting comes around we will be in good shape."
Winthrop (25-27, 8-10 Big South) comes in as the No. 3 seed. Coastal Carolina (25-29, 6-12) is seeded sixth but beat the Lady Eagles three times in four games this season.
Cooke has a history of postseason success playing at Coastal. The last time the Big South tournament was held at CCU Softball Field, in 2007, Winthrop won it all.
The road to a championship didn't start well for Winthrop on Wednesday. The team bus broke down between Rock Hill and Florence. They were delayed about an hour before a replacement bus could pick them up and complete the trek to Conway.
"We're hoping to win two (today)," Cooke said from his seat on the good bus. A win over the Chanticleers this afternoon would pit the team against either No. 2 Liberty or No. 7 Presbyterian at 7 tonight.
The Winthrop/Coastal postseason is a draw, 11-11, when they play head-to-head. The Lady Eagles are 13-4 all-time at Coastal Carolina during the tournament and have won three of their championship titles in Conway.
First-year Coastal Carolina coach Kelley Green hasn't been a part of the rivalry long enough to feel fully connected.
"We have focused on getting the team fired up for all Big South opponents," she said. "We certainly respect Winthrop a ton as they are a talented program."
During the regular season Coastal beat Winthrop on a neutral field, 2-0, on Valentine's Day. Junior pitcher Katelin Edwards spun a one-hit shutout. The teams met at Terry Field the first weekend in May and the Lady Eagles took the first game 10-2. Ashlee Revell went 2-for-3 with a home run and Taylor Wright drove in four runs to pace Winthrop's 10-hit attack.
Edwards threw a two-hitter to win the second game of the series, 3-1. The Chants won the rubber game, 6-1, even though Edwards failed to record an out before being replaced on the mound. Ashley Frederick threw seven innings of shutout relief.
Edwards threw a no-hitter against Charleston Southern on March 31 and has had pretty good control.
"We are not too concerned about (Edwards). We are confident that she can go out against any team in the conference and give us a strong performance," Green said.
Winthrop has lost eight of its last 10 games and 15 of 21 dating back to March 31.
The team had a 20-11 record, was batting .263 and scoring 4.4 runs a game before April came around. The three-game series at Liberty (April 2-3) was the turning point in the season.
Before the slump, the team's earned run average was 1.87 led by seniors Cari Wooldridge and Megan Evans. As the team's scoring average dropped from 4.4 a game to 2.7, the ERA inflated to 3.39 as the Lady Eagles were allowing 3.8 runs a game.
The team batting average has dropped to .246. In the last 21 games they have scored two runs or less 12 times.
Two bright spots for Winthrop is the emergence of Megan Chapman and Ashlee Revell at the plate. Revell has batted .356 in the last 17 games. It all started against Gardner-Webb when she hit a walk-off three-run home run as a pinch-hitter. She's hit three homers and has a team-high nine RBIs in the last 21 games. Megan Chapman has become the lead-off hitter as she's batting .343 in that spot during the slump.
The two have formed a formidable middle infield combo as well. Winthrop is ranked 19th nationally in double plays per game.
Cooke wants to erase the memory of last season's tournament when the Lady Eagles lost their first two games and was ousted. Since the Big South started seeding teams in 2002, Winthrop has never been the three seed.
Winthrop has finished third in the conference regular standings just one other time (2000) in 22 seasons.
For the second-straight season Radford is the No. 1 seed. The Highlanders went 16-2 in conference play to claim the regular-season championship for the second time in school history. Radford's 16 wins also ties their own Big South single-season record, set in 2009.
Liberty posted a 13-5 record in the Conference to earn the No. 2 seed. Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern finished tied for third-place in the league standings with 8-10 records. The composite records between the three teams were evaluated with each having an identical 3-3 record against each other.
The records against the No. 1 seeded Highlanders were compared next with the Lady Eagles being the only team of the three to defeat Radford in the regular season making them the No. 3 seed. Gardner-Webb is the No. 4 seed and Charleston Southern landed in the No. 5 spot.