The Valdosta Daily Times
One would expect a matchup featuring two of the top softball programs in Division II to come in the national championship game.
Unfortunately for Valdosta State and Alabama-Huntsville, who have combined to appear in four straight national championship games, they won’t be meeting in title game on Memorial Day in Salem, Va.
Instead, the two heavyweight softball programs, led by their highly revered — and highly competitive — coaches, will face off this weekend in a best-of-three Super Regional at VSU’s Steel’s Diamond at Blazer Park.
“Either one of us could be playing for the national championship in a week,” Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said. “Unfortunately, we have to beat each other up this weekend for one of us to go. In that retrospect, that kind of sucks. But it is what it is.”
While considered rivals, Valdosta State and Alabama-Huntsville enter this weekend with a shared common respect for one another, even though on the field the teams are always playing one another for a Gulf South Conference or South Region championship.
“The rivalry has kind of changed since I’ve been here,” Valdosta State senior catcher Ashley Steinhilber said. “We used to not really enjoy playing them. But now, it is more of a fun thing to do. We have played them so many times. The players have a mutual respect for each other, like the coaches. Because they are both good programs, top two in the conference.
“I think it is awesome that our conference has been able to go (to the national championship game) the past four years. This would be a fifth. That is awesome. I think the GSC should get two at nationals, rather than just one from the South. I think if we keep doing this, they will have to change it, which is impressive enough.”
And once this weekend is over, and the teams have beaten one another up, as Macera put it, the loser will likely be supporting the victor in next week’s eight-team national tournament. Case in point last year, when UAH head coach Les Stuedeman sent text messages to VSU representatives for updates on how the Blazers were playing while in Louisville, Ky.
For the next two days, though, while sharing a common respect for one another, the teams will fight to the end for a trip back to the national tournament.
For Valdosta State, the 2012 Division II national champion and only team from the GSC to win the championship game, it is looking for a third trip in the last four years. Alabama-Huntsville is looking for its third trip to the national tourney since 2009, the last time the VSU and UAH faced off in a Super Regional.
“We know we have a good team, (Les) has a good team,” Macera said.
And while the attention will be on the players, there will also be some attention on the coaches. UAH’s Stuedeman was named the GSC’s Coach of the Year this season, while Macera garnered the honor last year, and both coaches are respected by their colleagues in the coaching field.
“The thing about coaching against her is that her teams are always well prepared and they fight till the end,” Macera said. “Her team and ours are almost mirror images of each other.”
VSU last played Alabama-Huntsville in a regional, not a super regional, was in 2010. UAH run-ruled the Blazers twice and later advanced to the national championship game, losing to UC-San Diego.
Since then, the Blazers are 8-2 against the Lady Chargers, including 2-2 this season. The last meeting between the teams was in the Gulf South Conference Tournament championship game earlier this month, when the Blazers rallied in the seventh inning to win a record fifth straight conference championship.
With mixed results this year, Macera said his team isn’t approaching the weekend series any different than the previous meetings.
“We aren’t going to do anything different,” Macera said. “It is the same pitching, we’ve seen the same good hitters we’ve seen. I just think it is going to come down to them or us, whatever team makes the mistakes, is going to lose.”
In the last meeting, the Blazers rallied and scored two runs in the top of the seventh inning to beat the Lady Chargers in the GSC title game. The rally went in line with the Blazers mantra of never quitting and playing all seven innings.
“Our motto is it takes seven (innings) to win a ball game,” Macera said. “You have to play seven as hard as you can. You can’t take an inning off. This team has been playing for seven innings as hard as they can and that is what has been winning games for us. We’ve been behind in a lot of games this year.”
In the title game, UAH scored three runs in the first inning off VSU starter Brianna Hancock, who recorded all three wins last weekend for the Blazers in the South Region 1 Tournament.
After allowing the three runs, Hancock shut down the Lady Chargers, limiting them to one hit through the final six innings.
“With them, I just try to attack my spots,” Hancock said. “I try to keep it low because there isn’t much they can do much, unless you bring it up in the zone — like any hitter. And they are all decent hitters.”
A large crowd is expected for tonight’s game, which is slated for a 6 p.m. first pitch.
Last year’s Super Regional in Valdosta, against Florida Southern, drew a crowd of 849, a school-record and one of the largest in Division II history.
Tonight, close to 1,000 fans are expected to attend.
“It always help to play in your back yard,” Macera said. “If you look at any program in the country, I don’t care what team it is, they always have great records at home. You play better at home for some reason, it has always been that way. We got the best fans there is. They are into the game and the girls know that. I think it gives them a confidence booster, know they are here to support them.”
“You can’t describe it,” Steinhilber said. “You hear some voices but you don’t hear others, you know they are there but you don’t. But how many have you met in your life in college, on any level, that can say they have played in an atmosphere close to that.”
Following tonight’s game, the teams will play game two of the series Saturday at 1 p.m., with the “if necessary” game three beginning at 3 p.m.
Alabama-Huntsville (42-15) at Valdosta State (44-10)
What: South Super Regional, best-of-three series
Where: Steel’s Diamond at Blazer Park
When: Game 1 — Tonight, 6 p.m.; Game 2 — Saturday, 1 p.m.; Game 3 (if necessary) — Saturday, 3 p.m.
Series this season: 2-2
Series last 20 meetings: VSU leads 11-9
Last meeting: VSU won 3-2 in GSC title game, May 5
Last South Region Championship: VSU — 2012; UAH — 2011
Head coaches: VSU — Thomas Macera (8th season; 387-95); UAH — Les Stuedeman (18th season; 845-264-1)
Key players: VSU — Courtney Albritton (two-time GSC Player of the Year); UAH — Kimberly Jack (GSC Freshman/Pitcher of the Year)
Quick notes: Either VSU or UAH has played in the national championship game since 2009; VSU is only team in Gulf South Conference history to win the Division II softball national championship