Clemson’s softball team is taking a normal approach to being the favorite this week.
And by normal, coaches and players said the Tigers don’t plan on switching up anything because of the number beside their name. That includes their mental focus.
“We have expectations and a target on our back, and we’re not sneaking up on anybody,” Clemson coach John Rittman said.
When it comes to advancing in the NCAA Tournament, Clemson has about as good a draw as a team could hope for on opening weekend. The Tigers will get to sleep in their own beds and play at a stadium they’re all too familiar with while playing in their own regional for the first time in program history. The No. 10 national seed, Clemson is the 1 seed in the Clemson Regional and will open tournament play against No. 4 seed UNC Wilmington on Friday at McWhorter Stadium.
Senior infielder Cammy Pereira still vividly remembers the raucous atmosphere the Tigers stepped into this time last year when Clemson traveled to Alabama to play in its first-ever regional in Tuscaloosa, which the host Crimson Tide won with a 3-0 record. The Tigers are counting on a similar type of environment at their stadium that they believe should help their cause this time.
“(The atmosphere) is 10 times stronger when you’re in someone else’s environment, so I think being able to have that on our side this time is going to be something that’s really helpful for us,” Periera said. “I think our environment is unmatched, and I think we’re pretty close up there with the big stadiums, big fans and big moments. So it’s definitely going to play to our advantage.”
Said pitcher Valerie Cagle, “I think our own fans have wanted this for a while. They really wanted it last year and got really disappointed (when Clemson wasn’t chosen as a regional host), so I think they’re going to bring that energy that’s kind of been building for a while.”
That doesn’t mean Clemson is already thinking super regionals. The Tigers know they have to take care of business in a regional that will hardly be a cakewalk. Auburn, the 2 seed, has one of the top hitting-pitching duos around in SEC Freshman of the Year Bri Ellis (18 home runs) and right-hander Maddie Penta (1.77 earned run average in 40 appearances).
Louisiana, at least on paper, may be even stiffer competition. The Ragin’ Cajuns, who’ve already won 40 games in back-to-back seasons, have won 22 of their past 23 games and bring a season-best 13-game winning streak into regional play. And then there’s UNC Wilmington, which showed what it’s capable of by running the table in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament last week to earn the conference’s automatic bid.
Wilmington has the fewest wins (32) of any team in the regional and easily the lowest RPI ranking, sitting at triple digits in that metric (No. 110). The Seahawks have also yet to beat an ACC team this season with losses to North Carolina and North Carolina State, but Clemson’s coaches and players don’t care what the numbers say. They’re well aware this isn’t the time of year to be taking anyone lightly in between the white lines.
“I know they’re a respectable program,” Periera said of Wilmington. “I know any team that’s good enough to make it to a regional has got to be somebody that’s good competition, so we just can’t overlook anybody at this point. Just have to respect any team that’s made it to this point because that means they deserved it.”
Should Clemson win Friday, the Tigers will face the winner of the second opening-round game between Auburn and Louisiana. The winner of that would advance to Sunday’s regional final, but anything after Friday can wait. Clemson is taking things one game at a time.
“As Coach Rittman always says, (the game) doesn’t know who’s supposed to win or lose,” shortstop Alia Logoleo said. “So we’re just going to go out and give it everything we’ve got just like any other game.”
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