Nashville, Tenn. -- The Stetson softball team enters this week's six-team Atlantic Sun Conference Championship as the no. 6 seed, a position which the Hatters are more than happy to have.
After four weeks of conference play, Stetson found itself in eighth place in the standings with a 3-9 record and in serious jeopardy of missing out on postseason play. However, a doubleheader sweep of Jacksonville on April 10 kickstarted a strong 10-4 finish and put the Hatters into the postseason for the 13th time in the last 14 years.
When asked to look back on the season, several of the players immediately pointed to one moment that helped spur the turnaround.
"Before the first Jacksonville series we got on the bus and it was only the players and (Coach) JJ (Payette) on the bus," junior Chrissy Morello said. "She went crazy telling us we can do this if we believe in ourselves, and this (doubleheader) can be the turning point."
"JJ lit a fire under us," sophomore Taylor Cochran said. "We were kind of down, and she took us aside and said, 'I believe in you, you can do this.' I think that made us realize that we need to believe in each other more. It snapped something in us and we really came together as a team."
The Hatters (30-20) hope to capture the ultimate team prize this week as they compete for the A-Sun Championship and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The double elimnation playoff begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday as Stetson faces third-seeded Florida Gulf Coast (35-16) at at Lipscomb University's Draper Diamond.
"They are playing with a lot more experience after 50 games under their belt, and I think it showed the last 14 games or so in conference play," Stetson head coach Frank Griffin said about his squad. "They started putting things together in the way of offense, defense, pitching, and scoring runs. It was good to see from such a young squad."
Although the Hatters had some success last year as the no. 6 seed, winning their first two games of the tournament, Griffin said he didn't think seeding would be a factor at all this week.
"I think the team that gets the job done this weekend is going to walk away with it, and it could be any of the six teams," Griffin said.
Senior Jordan Cleghorn said the team will feel comfortable playing the role of underdog as the no. 6 seed.
"I think it is to our advantage," Cleghorn said. "Nobody really expects anything out of us. We made some changes throughout the season, we've worked really hard and improved on a lot. I think we have a really good chance of getting four wins and winning the whole thing."
Second-team all-conference pitcher Meredith Owen (21-8, 1.82 ERA) will likely be called on to be the workhorse in the circle this week. Owen helped carry the Hatters down the stretch with a 9-1 mark and a 1.12 ERA over her final 10 starts of the season.
"She will be ready, she is mentally tough and physically strong," Griffin said about Owen. "Certainly we have to get solid performances out of Meredith, but we need to string together some hits and score some runs. I don't think there are going to be many 1-0 games in this tournament. I think there are going to be some runs scored and we have to be a big part of it."
Stetson will be looking to exact some revenge on FGCU as the Eagles swept the Hatters in a three-game series in Fort Myers back in March.
"We were hoping to play them first, because of how close the series was when we played them," Morello said. "We had a rough a weekend, that was the first weekend that (Chelsea) Whalley was hurt, so we were all shaken up. I think with the experience that we have now that we will do fine."
It is unknown if the Hatters will hear another speech from Payette before the tournament starts, but Cleghorn says the Hatters just need to relax and play with the same positive attitude that they have enjoyed over the final month of the season.
"Lately we have been having fun and we have been winning," Cleghorn said. "Early in the season we were more focused on the winning aspect than on having fun. I think the biggest thing is to play the game and have fun and realize that we are four games away from reaching our goal."
Live video for all Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday games will be broadcast for free on ASun.TV. Live stats, the Stetson Softball twitter feed, and the Hat-Alerts text messaging service will also be available for in-game updates.