BLACKSBURG — Last year, the Virginia Tech softball team was not one of the top 16 overall seeds in the NCAA tournament. The Hokies won an NCAA regional despite having to go all the way to Arizona State.
But this time, the Hokes (41-7) will take the field Friday as the No. 3 overall seed in the 64-team NCAA field. And they will be hosting an NCAA regional for the first time.
“Our level of confidence is pretty high,” designated player Meredith Slaw said Thursday at a press conference after the team practiced. “We have experience. We’ve been here before, so we know what to expect. But you have to show up pitch to pitch, inning to inning, game to game.
“Traveling is so much fun — obviously we love it — but being here in Blacksburg, just seeing how this sport is growing, it’s really cool to see. And I think the team is very, very excited.”
Tech, ranked third in the national Top 25 coaches poll, will face Northeast Conference champ St. Francis, a 37-16 team from Pennsylvania, at 2 p.m. Friday to open the four-team, three-day, double-elimination regional. Kentucky (35-17), ranked 15th in the coaches poll, will meet Mid-American Conference champ Miami of Ohio (39-15-1) at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
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The Hokies know that high expectations come with being the No. 3 overall seed.
“We were actually just talking about this before practice. … We were saying we have a pretty high ranking — people expect us to win,” freshman pitcher Emma Lemley said. “We just have to think back to the beginning of the season when rankings really didn’t matter.”
Temporary bleachers have been added down the left-field line and behind the left-field fence, so the seating capacity of Tech Softball Park will roughly double for the regional to about 2,000 fans.
“It just helps, being in front of your home crowd,” Tech ace Keely Rochard said. “It’s really cool, just even seeing all those stands up there and knowing they’re probably going to be filled. … It’s really important for our sport and for Virginia Tech.”
Kentucky hosted a regional for the past five NCAA tournaments, winning its regional the past four times. But the Wildcats don’t get to stay home and play in front of “Big Blue Nation” this weekend.
“It’s just going to be a challenge a little bit not to have BBN behind us, … but I think anywhere that we go, we can do it,” Kentucky pitcher Tatum Spangler said.
Tech is the top seed in the regional, with Kentucky the No. 2 seed, Miami of Ohio the No. 3 seed and St. Francis the No. 4 seed.
Kentucky lost to the Hokies 6-1 in six innings in Florida in February and lost 7-5 at Miami of Ohio in March.
“This is one of the more difficult [regionals] in the country,” Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said.
“Rochard’s one of the best pitchers we’ve seen all year, if not the best. … Miami of Ohio, both pitchers, … also elite-level pitching. And Virginia Tech’s freshman [Lemley], she is outstanding.
“That’s what makes this such a tough regional. … The pitching is outstanding and … all the offenses … are high-powered offenses.
“I didn’t realize how easily the ball goes out of the park at Virginia Tech till we just practiced. I was shocked. We were check-swinging over the fence. So it’s going to be very interesting because you have high-powered offenses going against elite-level pitching. So I think that’s what’s going to make this a very exciting regional.”
The Hokies not only beat Kentucky this year but also defeated Miami of Ohio 8-0 in five innings in South Carolina in February.
“It doesn’t matter,” Rochard said. “Just like your ranking — your ranking isn’t going to win you a game. A previous win isn’t going to win you the next one.”
What will help this weekend, said Rochard, is the tough schedule that Tech played this year.
“We’ve been put in Alabama’s home atmosphere. We went out to Florida and we played … Top 25 teams,” Rochard said. “Nerves were kind of washed away at the beginning of the year, … [so it] is nice that we had that kind of schedule — it’s mainly for reasons like this.”
The Hokies hope to pack more of an offensive punch this weekend than they did in the ACC tournament last week. They were held to a total of three runs in their two ACC tournament games.
Tech coach Pete D’Amour told his players Sunday that “it’s all about hitting for power now and limiting other teams’ power.”
“You just look at the games, for example, last year that we won in regionals. We hit a lot of homers, a lot of extra-base hits. And we didn’t give up many,” D’Amour said Thursday. “You look at the first [super regional] game at UCLA, … we had a triple, a double [and won that game]. … And then the next two games, they tagged us for a couple of homers [and UCLA won both].
“So if you can score runs with one swing of the bat, it just helps at this part of the season.
“You look at last week against Clemson — we hit five singles, [scored just] one run. So can we hit for power? That’s the name of the game right now.”