The Stetson softball team will face one its stiffest challenges of the season this weekend as the Hatters visit USC Upstate for a three-game Atlantic Sun Conference series at Cyrill Stadium in Spartanburg, S.C.
The Spartans (29-3) not only currently sit in first-place in the A-Sun with a 10-1 league record, but are receiving enough votes for a virtual #26 national ranking in both the USA Today/NFCA and the ESPN.com/USA Today Top 25 polls.
The Hatters (20-13, 3-6 A-Sun), however, do not have to look very far back to find a history of success playing against USC Upstate in Spartanburg. In 2010, after starting the year 1-4 in conference play, the Hatters blanked USC Upstate 1-0 behind a brilliant one-hit shutout by Amanda Lindsey. That win sparked a 15-2 stretch for Stetson that carried the Hatters deep into the conference tournament.
Last season the Hatters made two trips to Cyrill Stadium. In the regular season, Meredith Owen hit two home runs and Courtney Brandt added another as Stetson won 5-2 in game one of a doubleheader.
Then in the opening round of the Atlantic Sun tournament, Brandt fired a two-hit shutout as the Hatters claimed a 1-0 victory over the Spartans.
"This weekend is huge for our team," Brandt said. "USC Upstate is number one in our conference right now and if we have any hope of going to the tournament then we need really need these wins. I have all the confidence in the world that we can do it."
Demi Meza hit two home runs during last year's A-Sun tournament, including one against the Spartans in the 1-0 Stetson victory.
"Because we had the opportunity to play at Upstate twice last season, we definitely have the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of their field," Meza said. "Often times when we travel, we have a difficult time adjusting to other fields and atmospheres. That shouldn't be a huge issue this weekend."
Upstate enters the weekend red-hot, having won eight straight and 15 out of its last 16 games overall. The Spartans lead the conference in several offensive categories, including batting (.354), slugging (.544), on-base percentage (.403), and scoring (7.1). Five starters are batting over .350.
What will the Hatter pitchers need to do to be successful?
"We need to stay mentally tough against their hitters," Owen said. "If we get frustrated things will snowball, so if they start hitting we need to make fast adjustments to keep them off balance."
Stetson is coming off a 2-1 weekend against Northern Kentucky in which Brandt went 2-0 in the circle and Jessica Griffin hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the eighth inning on Saturday. Owen also went deep for Stetson, giving her four home runs against A-Sun opponents this year.
"This weekend is very important for our confidence as well as our conference standing," Owen said. "We need to go in with a confident and strong mindset that we can and will take these games."
At 3-6, the Hatters currently sit in eighth place in the Atlantic Sun. Only the top six teams qualify for the A-Sun tournament.
"This weekend is extremely important for us," Meza said. "We have all been working really hard during practice and coming closer together. Pulling out wins this weekend will help us get closer to our goal of making the conference tournament."
All three games this weekend will be broadcast by USC Upstate for free on ASun.TV. Saturday's doubleheader will begin at 4 p.m. while Sunday's series finale will start at 1 p.m. Fans can also get in-game updates by following Stetson Softball on twitter or by subscribing to the Hat-Alerts text messaging service.