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8 May 2008

One Last Chance to Reach Dance: Host JSU Looks to Make Good This Time

By Al Muskewitz
Star Sports Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

JACKSONVILLE In what already has been a season of milestones, the Jacksonville State softball team is looking to make a little more history this weekend.

During the course of the year, the Gamecocks played the 1,000th game in their program's history, posted their 600th all-time win and handed Coach of the Year Jana McGinnis her 500th career victory.

For many teams, that would be satisfaction enough, but the Gamecocks want more. They would like nothing better than to cap it off this weekend at University Field by winning their first Ohio Valley Conference tournament title a feat that eluded them four years ago when they last hosted the conference tournament and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Division I was a new world to them.

"It would definitely be great to have," senior designated hitter/catcher Alana Hicks said. "The 500 wins, the 1,000 (games), the 600 and also win the conference regular season and the tournament, that would be a great thing.

"It would be pretty heart-wrenching, I would have to say, to go this far and not reach all our goals. Our whole goal this whole season was to get to the regional tournament and make this a great season, one to remember for the record books. Without that, the season would have a big black mark on it."

Third baseman Whitney Elder couldn't agree more.

"Who cares about the 500 wins, the 1,000th game?" she said. "They are very important for this program, because it says a lot about our program, but it doesn't matter until you take it to that next level, and that's going to the regionals."

To make it happen here, the top-seeded Gamecocks (35-14) would have to win a minimum of three games starting today at 5:30 p.m. against either Eastern Illinois (20-24) or Tennessee Tech (28-28-1) the only OVC teams besides Morehead State to beat them this year.

Surprise second seed Morehead opens against either Eastern Kentucky (28-20) or Samford (23-27) on the other side of the bracket. The Eagles (33-14) are making their first OVC Tournament appearance since 2000 after being picked tenth in the preseason conference poll.

An NCAA berth awaits the tournament champion. The Gamecocks haven't made a regional since 1996 their first full-fledged year in Division I and missed arguably their best chance to return four years ago, when they last hosted the OVC Tournament. Even McGinnis said with that team they should have won it

Elder and Hicks were freshmen back then the only players from that team still in the program but they remember what McGinnis described as "your nightmare" of watching Tech celebrate the championship in the middle of their infield.

"There was just this big hollow feeling because we just lost it," Hicks said. "We always say we don't want anyone to come in here and win on our home field, especially in the tournament when you're the No. 1 seed. You hate to see the other team cheering on a trophy that should've been yours; especially when it's at your own house."

This year's JSU team has the same conference record as that one four years ago, but there is one element that Gamecocks across the board believe separates this team from the other.

"This team has a better team mentality than that team," McGinnis said. "We had a great year that year, but I still think some of the players thought the success was based on them. This team has a better team mentality. If you look at all the articles on our Web site, there has been a different picture (of the key player) every game. It's not the same ones all the time.

"When we lost (pitcher Karla Pittman to injury), I don't think anybody expected us to be where we are now. It just says a lot about them. They're hard workers. They're good people. They're good players. They're winners. They want to win."

The Gamecocks' nine regulars are all hitting above .245 and have scored at least 20 runs. Six have hit at least four home runs with Allie Barker and Nikki Prier leading the team with 14 each and seven have 20 or more RBIs.

Eight players made the all-conference list, five on the first team, with pitcher Ashley Eliasson being named Freshman of the Year.

"That's what I think makes us special," Hicks said. "That freshman year, it was certain people you wanted to get to (at the plate). This year, when anybody comes up, I'm confident, and I don't think I've ever said that. Our No. 9 hitter (Mary Beth Ledbetter) came up (big) in the EKU series, and it's been like that. It could be 1 through 9 any day of the week. It's a great feeling to look at your lineup and see that.

"There's a completely different feeling coming into this tournament than there was four years ago. I clearly remember, we were more separated that year. This year, we're one. We all want it. Our eyes are all on the same goal. It's completely different."

And perhaps that will produce a completely different milestone.


At University Field, Jacksonville

Today's games

Game 1 No. 3 E. Kentucky vs. No. 6 Samford, 10 a.m.

Game 2 No. 4 E. Illinois vs. No. 5 Tennessee Tech, 12:30 p.m.

Game 3 No. 2 Morehead vs. EKU-Samford winner, 3 p.m.

Game 4 No. 1 Jax State vs. EIU-Tenn. Tech winner, 5:30 p.m.

Friday's games

Game 5 Game 2 loser vs. Game 3 loser, 10 a.m.

Game 6 Game 1 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 12:30 p.m.

Game 7 Game 4 winner vs. Game 3 winner, 3 p.m.

Game 8 Game 6 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 5:30 p.m.

Saturday's games

Game 9 Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 winner, 10 a.m.

Game 10 Championship, 12:30 p.m.

Game 11 If necessary, 3 p.m.

About Al Muskewitz

Al Muskewitz covers golf and Jacksonville State University sports teams for The Anniston Star.

See story at The Anniston Star's website: .

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