USC Beaufort

USC Beaufort likely needs to win Sun softball tournament for NAIA berth

Throw out the 35 wins, the second-place finish in the Sun Conference and the bevy of player of the week honors. None of it matters anymore for the USC Beaufort softball team.

It's win or go home for the Sand Sharks.

It's been a season of firsts in USCB's inaugural season. Those firsts continue today, when the Sand Sharks take on Northwood at 11:30 a.m. in the opening round of the conference tournament in Clermont, Fla.

"We've done a great job of battling every game," coach Ty Rietkovich said. "Half of our wins and all but one of our losses have come, really, in the final inning. So I think our team is going to be there to the end of every game in the tournament."

Rietkovich and Co. will need to be playing to the end if they want their season to continue. Unlike NAIA baseball, only four to five at-large berths are awarded to the softball national tournament each year. So the Sand Sharks most likely will need to capture the conference tournament in order to reach the national championship, which will be held May 17-23 in Gulf Shores, Ala.

"We feel like we have an honest to goodness chance," Rietkovich said.

Rietkovich likes his chances in part because of who he'll send to the pitching circle in the opening game against the Seahawks. Freshman Kristy Cook, who recently captured her second straight Pitcher of the Week award, is USCB's probable starter. The Brooks, Ga., native threw her second perfect game and third-no hitter of the year last Wednesday against Edward Waters before allowing one earned run in 13 innings over the weekend against SCAD Savannah.

"Kristy has been a (great) story this year," Rietkovich said. "For a freshman to come in and be the ace of the staff, she's never backed down, never complained. She's never done anything except go out there and give us a chance to win every single time she's gotten in the circle."

Her numbers certainly suggest that, as the right-hander enters the postseason with an 18-4 record and a 1.60 ERA. She'll take on a Seahawk squad that the Sand Sharks swept in a two-game series back in March, which included an eighth-inning walk-off to claim a 5-4 win.

"She's obviously one of the top five things that I'll remember about this year," Rietkovich said of his ace.

In its second tournament game, USCB will take on either SCAD or Ave Maria on Saturday morning, when pitcher Caroline Pastre (8-5, 2.34 ERA) is expected to get the nod. The Sand Sharks went a combined 5-1 against those two teams this year.

USCB enters the postseason unranked, which likely means it will not be awarded a spot in the NAIA national tournament if it doesn't win the conference tournament. At-large berths are normally reserved for Top 25 programs that fail to automatically qualify with tournament titles. That will change next season, when the postseason will be formatted more like baseball, but for now Rietkovich's team must focus on leaving Florida with more Sun Conference hardware in order to stay alive.

"I faithfully expect to be playing Sunday afteroon at 2 o'clock (for the title) to give us a chance to go," Rietkovich said. "We're not going down there with any other expectations."