NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There are differences on both sides of the field since the last time the Lipscomb Lady Bisons and the Kennesaw State Owls played against each other in softball.
Players have changed. Some are playing more. Some are playing less. Fortunes have changed, though both teams finished strong in the regular season.
But the memories of that series linger with the Lady Bisons.
It was the first Atlantic Sun Conference home series for the Purple and Gold on March 16 and 17. Kennesaw State won two of the three games in the series taking the opener 6-3 and the series finale 2-0. The Lady Bisons won the second game of the doubleheader 4-3.
Wednesday afternoon at 5:30 the two will meet again in the first day of the A-Sun Softball Championship at Draper Diamond on the LU campus. Lipscomb is the No. 4 seed with a 32-22 record overall, 18-8 in the A-Sun. Kennesaw State, the No. 5-seed, is 34-18, 16-10 in the conference.
The two teams have met twice in the A-Sun Championships in the past three years with each winning one game.
LU won 10 of its last 11 conference games. Kennesaw State won its last five conference games along with non-conference victories against Georgia Tech and UAB.
“They do pitch well and they do hit well,” LU coach Kristin Ryman said. “They have really been hitting well lately.
“They have worked through the kinks a lot like we have. They have a clear-cut No.1 pitcher in Amanda Henderson. Abby Mixon is a very good No. 2 pitcher. We saw Monica Vickery in game three against us and she is a good option for them as well.
Henderson is 18-4 with a 1.75 earned run average. She also has four saves. Mixon is 14-9 with a 2.92 ERA. Vickery is 2-4 with a 2.73 ERA.
The Lady Bisons are led in hitting by Brittany Elmore with a .342 average in the lead-off spot. She leads the team and the conference in stolen bases with 33.
Paige Neely is second, hitting at a .327 clip, and leads the team with 37 runs batted in. Gracey Aguirre is batting.318 with 13 doubles.
Kristen Sturdivant leads LU in home runs with 12. She also is first with a .599 slugging percentage.
“I think there is an approach and a game plan that we will have to have at the plate if we want to get to their pitching early and find ways to score runs early,” Ryman said.
Sharon Swanson leads Kennesaw State in hitting with a .354 average and in home runs with 10. She is also first in runs batted in with 34.
Sara Sikes bats .323 and has 13 doubles. Natalie Rhodes is hitting .304.
“Our pitchers will have to be on their game and hitting their spots,” Ryman said. “Kennesaw State has a good hitting group.
“We have to have a smart approach to their hitters. We have to find ways to get ahead in the count. Defensively, we have to continue to be solid.”
Like LU, with Elmore and Neely, Kennesaw State also has a strong one-two punch at the top of the order.
“Sara Sikes at the top of the order really sparks them,” Ryman said. “Natalie Rhodes has really come on strong. She and Sikes are a good one-two punch at the top of the order. They both have speed. They can both slap and hit. They spark them.
“Then there is Sharon Swanson in the middle of the order. She is their home run threat. She is easily one of the best power hitters in the conference.”
It is a coaching cliché that any team in a tournament is capable of winning, but there is parity between the six teams in the field.
North Florida, the No. 1 seed has 18 wins, the same as the Lady Bisons. USC Upstate, the No.2 seed has the highest RPI among conference teams at 47. Florida Gulf Coast, the No. 3 seed, won the tournament championship last season. Stetson, No. 6, won seven of its last 10 conference games.
“North Florida has had a great year and is deserving of the top spot,” Ryman said. “They have won a lot of games when they needed to win them.
“USC Upstate has been nationally ranked and had a phenomenal year. Florida Gulf Coast, Kennesaw State and Stetson are like us. We have all had our ups and downs, but we have all still found a way to compete with the top two and to take games from the top two.”
Mistakes will have to be kept at a minimum. Pitchers cannot afford to have an off inning. Hitters cannot have mental lapses.
“Our conference is so strong, especially this year,” Ryman said. “There is going to be a lot of pressure this week on everybody. Whoever handles it the best, whoever plays the best in that moment and stays composed will be the teams that find themselves playing on Saturday.
“There weren’t many sweeps among the top six teams. There are not many teams in the tournament that someone will say, `oh, yeah we definitely want to play them and that is because the top six are so strong.”
The tournament continues through Saturday. The winner gets the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Tickets will be sold at the gate only. Tournament pass are $25, adult day pass are $10, while ages 5-12 day pass are $5. Ages 5 and under and A-Sun college students (with school ID) will get in free.