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15 May 2008

JSU, 'Bama Softball Begin Postseason Today

Jacksonville State Pitcher Ashley Eliasson fires to the plate against Tennessee Tech on Saturday. Photo: Trent Penny/Anniston Star/File

By Al Muskewitz
Star Sports Writers

Reprinted here in its entirety.

JACKSONVILLE Jana McGinnis has compared this year's Jacksonville State softball team to her last team that made the NCAA Tournament many times during this post-season run.

It has the same low-maintanence off-field demeanor and a lineup without a superstar. But there is one element the Gamecocks would like to see different when they return to the regionals today at Tuscaloosa the ability to score some runs.

Weather permitting, the Gamecocks (38-14) open the Tuscaloosa Regional today at 4 p.m. against Florida State (37-26). No. 3 national seed Alabama (51-6) concludes the day's play at the Alabama Softball Complex against Chattanooga (41-20) at 6:30.

The last time Jax State made it to the NCAA Tournament 1996 it swept a play-in series at UNC-Greensboro, then went to Washington and lost twice without scoring a run.

The players don't envision that happening this time.

"There's not a doubt in my mind that we're going to be able to score not only a few runs, but a whole bunch of runs," first baseman Nikki Prier said. "We've got the talent and the bats that have stuck with us all year. From 1 to 9, we're a top-notch hitting team. You can't not pitch to someone because you've got someone just as good or better behind them One through nine, we're just an awesome hitting team."

Indeed. Six of their hitters are bating .297 or better, and eight of their nine regulars have at least three homers and 22 RBIs. They rank in the top 25 nationally in hitting and the top 10 in scoring, homers (third), doubles and slugging percentage.

Rachel Fleming, the OVC Tournament most valuable player, leads the team with a .375 average. Catcher Allie Barker has 15 homers and 44 RBIs, while Prier has 14 homers and 45 RBIs. Leadoff hitter Chrissy O'Neal has homers and No. 9 hitter Mary Beth Ledbetter has seven homers.

"The thing with this team is we really don't have superstars on this team; 1 through 9 are all good hitters and we have people who can come in who are good hitters, too," Barker said. "There's not just one or two you have to pitch around, I think with our team it's the whole team Everyone has a chance to do it and they can do it. It's very nice."

Alabama, hosting its third straight regional, is making its 10th straight NCAA tournament appearance overall. The Crimson Tide made it to back-to-back Women's College World Series in 2005 and 2006, but lost in a Super Regional at Washington last year.

Having to travel before the World Series won't be a problem for Alabama, which will host a Super Regional next week if it emerges victorious from this weekend's games. The Crimson Tide is 10-1 in regional play the last three years, with the lone loss to Tennessee Tech in last year's opening round.

"We have told them all week long that we need to take care of business," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "Anyone that is in is a good team and I thought that last year we had one of the best of the four-seeds. I think Chattanooga is one of the best four seeds; they are not a typical four seed. It is just like last year. We have talked about what happened last year."

Pitching inconsistency was Alabama's biggest bugaboo a year ago, but Murphy solved that problem in a big way this year. Kelsi Dunne immediately stepped in as the Crimson Tide's ace this year, going 22-4 with a 1.40 ERA and earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors this season.

Alabama has been one of the country's better teams at the plate all season, averaging nearly eight runs per game. Center fielder Brittany Murphy leads the country in steals (53) and runs scored (68), while first baseman Charlotte Morgan paces the SEC in RBIs (67) and is tied for tops in the conference in home runs (16).

Florida State is a team built on speed. Leading hitters Carly Wynn and Whitney Buckmon the first two hitters in the lineup are batting .371 and .342, respectively, and have combined for 38 stolen bases in 46 attempts. The Seminoles have 61 stolen bases as a team, but have hit only 26 home runs.

Pitcher Tiffany McDonald, 17-11 with a 1.63 ERA and 219 strikeouts, is the sister of former JSU standout Melinda McDonald. And she's not the only FSU player with a Jax State connecton. JSU designated player Kayla Collins transferred from FSU and her sister Allison is a catcher on the team.

If the Gamecocks and Alabama have the same outcome in their first games win or lose they'll meet each other Friday.

The Gamecocks lost to the then-No. 4 Tide 6-2 in the early-season Bama Bash. It was a game JSU led 1-0 before giving up four runs in the third inning.

Even if they play Chattanooga in the second round, the Gamecocks know they've already beaten the Mocs twice this year, but they would love nothing better than another crack at the Tide.

"We played good against them the first time, but we're better now," Prier said. "We played more as a team and we know we can give them a great run for their money, and beat them."

Today: JSU vs. Florida State
4 p.m., 91.9-FM; Chattanooga at Alabama, 6:30 p.m.

See story at The Anniston Star's website: .

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