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Lady Flames to Face No. 14 Tennessee in First Round of NCAA Regional
2011 NCAA Softball Knoxville Regional - Official Site
After claiming the 2011 Big South Softball Championship, the Liberty Lady Flames received an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Softball Championship, and will compete in the Knoxville Regional this weekend.
In what is being touted as the most challenging regional bracket in the tournament, Liberty will be joined by host Tennessee, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech. All three of the other teams are ranked in the top 20 in the most recent Ratings Percentage Index announced on May 11 (Tennessee: 13, Georgia Tech: 14, Oklahoma State: 18).
The Lady Flames (30-28) will face 14th-seeded Tennessee in their first game on Friday night. A win sets up a Saturday 2 p.m. contest against the winner of Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State; a loss sends the Lady Flames into the loser's bracket for a 4:30 p.m. game against the loser of that same game. The regional is a double-elimination event.
Live stats for all games will be available, in addition to a live audio broadcast provided by Nick Pierce of the Flames Sports Network. Links can be found on www.LibertyFlames.com. Also, all games in Knoxville will be video streamed on www.espn3.com.
Liberty has momentum going into its second NCAA Regional in program history, winning four straight contests to rise out of the loser's bracket and claim the conference championship. After falling to No. 7 seed Winthrop on the first day, the Lady Flames charged back to win three straight games Saturday, one over Winthrop and two over No. 6 seed Gardner-Webb.
On Saturday, the Lady Flames were crowned the conference champion after upsetting No. 1 seed Radford, 3-1. Liberty senior pitcher Tiffani Smith was named the tournament MVP, after tossing her second career no-hitter to eliminate Winthrop on Saturday, followed by a four-hit complete-game win against Radford for the title.
Several Lady Flames are among the top performers in the Big South this season. Kelly Strickland, the 2011 Big South Co-Player of the Year, leads the conference and ranks No. 50 in the nation, averaging 0.28 home runs per game. The junior currently ranks fifth on the all-time season top 10 list in program history with 16 home runs on the year. As a team, the Lady Flames are 35th in the country, averaging 1.04 homers per game.
Ashley Bensinger currently leads the team with a .349 batting average, followed by Keely McMillon at .339 and Strickland at .329.
Along with Smith, other Lady Flames named to the 2011 Big South Championship All-Tournament team were sophomore pitcher Katrina Johnson, freshman shortstop Sammi Shivock and junior outfielder Meredith Crisante.
The Lady Flames last competed in the NCAA Regional in 2002 in Columbia, S.C., where they were selected to face the nation's No. 1 ranked team, UCLA. That game remained scoreless until the bottom of the fifth inning, before the Bruins pulled away for a 3-0 win. Liberty was then eliminated from the tournament with a 7-1 loss to former Big South Conference member UMBC.
Scouting the Field
The Lady Vols (47-10) recently claimed the SEC Championship title by defeating Georgia, 6-5, with a Shelby Burchell walk-off home run in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Prior to going 3-0 in the conference tournament, Tennessee won 16 out of 17 games before losing three straight to Florida May 6, 7 and 8.
Tennessee is ranked No. 7 nationally, but is the 14th seed in the NCAA Championship. The Lady Vols are the No. 1 seed in the Knoxville regional.
As a team, the Lady Vols are No. 2 in the nation with a .352 overall batting average. Sophomore outfielder Raven Chavanne leads the team with a .455 average, good for a No. 8 national ranking. Fellow sophomore Kat Dotson is No. 16 in the country, averaging 1.13 RBIs per game. Chavanne and Lauren Gibson were both named to the All-SEC first team for the 2011 season.
Liberty was scheduled to face Tennessee during the 2011 regular season, but the March 8 contest was cancelled due to inclement weather. The Lady Flames made the trip to Knoxville, but a heavy rain came through right at game time.
The Lady Flames are 0-15 all-time against the Lady Vols since their first meeting in 2001. The last time the two squads met was March 14, 2010, when Tennessee defeated Liberty, 10-0.
The Yellow Jackets ended their regular season with a 44-10 overall record, and are coming off a first-round upset in the ACC Tournament. No. 8 seed Virginia defeated No. 1 Georgia Tech, 6-0, marking the first time the team had been shut out since Feb. 26, 2010, when the Yellow Jackets fell to Nebraska.
Still, Georgia Tech won the ACC regular season, winning 10 of its last 11 regular-season contests. The Yellow Jackets are ranked No. 19 in the country and are seeded third in the Knoxville Regional.
ACC Player of the Year Kelsi Weseman leads the team with a .445 batting average, which ranks 11th in the nation. She leads the country with a 1.034 slugging percentage and 21 home runs on the year. She is also tops in the nation in total bases (151) and being hit by pitches (14 times).
Only one starter on the Georgia Tech roster is batting under .300 this season (Kate Kuzma, .299).
Georgia Tech Head Coach Sharon Perkins was also named ACC Coach of the Year for the third consecutive year.
The Lady Flames have never faced the Yellow Jackets.
The Cowgirls are 37-17 and finished the regular season with an 8-10 mark in Big 12 play. The 20th-ranked team is the No. 2 regional seed, and will face Georgia Tech in the first game on Friday.
Oklahoma State is the No. 7 ranked team in the nation with a .978 fielding percentage. Offensively, the team is led by Alysia Hamilton, who is hitting .396 on the year, and Chelsea Garcia, who is batting .333 with 51 RBIs and 12 home runs.
Mariah Gearhart has a .365 batting average and has been dominant on the base paths, ranking 12th in the country with 0.66 stolen bases per game (33-of-35).
Pitcher Kat Espinosa posts a 20-7 record in the circle with a 2.36 ERA.
The Cowgirls enter the regional on a six-game losing streak. The team's last win came on April 27 with a 2-1 victory over Oklahoma.
If the Cowgirls and Lady Flames meet in the regional, it would be the first meeting between the two teams.