It’s tournament time in Tennessee.
The regular season is just a recent memory now as the Cleveland State baseball and softball teams will turn their attention to their respective NJCAA/TCCAA Region VII Conference Tournament.
The new tournament format of a year ago, in which only the top four teams qualified for postseason play, didn’t sit well with a lot of folks, so the format has been changed this year in an attempt to be fair to all 10 schools.
The top five seeded teams in both baseball and softball will host the bottom five seeds this weekend in a best two-of-three series with the winners advancing to the next weekend for the double-elimination round of the tournament to be held at Volunteer State.
“We have a unique problem with spring sports, because our tournament time coincides with the end of school and graduation,” explained Cleveland State Athletic Director and baseball coach Mike Policastro. “We had to try to come up with a way to be fair to all the teams and still work around graduation.
“I think this is a better way to do it, compared to last year,” the coach continued. “Last year some good teams got left out. You never know what can happen in the tournament, a team could be just so-so in the regular season and then get a key player back or just get hot and play up to their potential and win the tournament. I’ve seen it happen before. This format gives everybody a shot, and that’s all you can ask for.”
On the softball side of the bracket, top seeded and nationally ranked Chattanooga State will host 10th seeded Southwest Tennessee, second seeded Walters State will host Jackson State (9), Columbia State will host Motlow State in a three-eight matchup, seventh seeded Roane State will travel to fourth seeded Dyersburg State and the sixth seeded Cleveland State Lady Cougars will travel to fifth seeded Volunteer State.
The Lady Cougars have been one of the hottest teams in the conference down the stretch as they finished the regular season campaign by winning 14 of their last 18 games, including 12 in a row.
“It was a struggle early in the year,” stated Lady Cougar coach Katie Willingham. “A number of factors played into our slow start, weather, injuries and so on. But, the girls never gave up and kept working and fighting hard and they turned it around. We lost a lot of close games early, but we finally started doing a lot of the little things, and that is often the difference between winning and losing.”
The Lady Cougars will face Volunteer State in Gallatin this weekend and know they will have their work cut out for them as Cleveland State swept the four regular season games between the two teams.
“They are a really good team, especially on their home field,” said Willingham. “We will have to play well to win, but we are excited for the opportunity and ready to go.”
On the baseball side, Columbia State captured the top seed and will host 10th seeded Roane State. Second seeded and nationally ranked Walters State will host ninth seeded Southwest Tennessee, Jackson State (3) will host Dyersburg State (8), seventh seeded Volunteer State will travel to fourth seeded Chattanooga State and the sixth seeded Cleveland State Cougars will hit the road to face fifth seeded Motlow State.
The Cougars took two out of three from the Bucks in the regular season series and will be looking to repeat that outcome this weekend. Cleveland State went 14-6 in its last 20 games including a three-game win streak to end the season and hope to ride that momentum into the tournament.
“Motlow is a good, steady team, they don’t beat themselves and we will have to play well to go up there and win,” stated Policastro. “We were 1-6 in one-run games this year, that is a big stat. We’ve had an up-and-down year, battled a few injuries, but mostly we haven’t been consistent enough to win the close games. We have to do the little things, keep the errors to a minimum and come up with the clutch hit. We’re excited and it should be a good series.”
As always, Mother Nature plays a big role at tournament time, but both Cleveland State teams are scheduled to open play on Friday. The softball teams will play a doubleheader and then a single game the next day, if necessary, while the baseball teams will play three nine-inning games in three days.