The 2017 Mid-American Conference softball tournament begins tomorrow at Firestone Stadium in Akron, Ohio. The four-day, double-elimination event promises to be both competitive and unpredictable. Half of the eight-team field is in the top 100 of the current NCAA softball RPI rankings, and six of them won at least 14 of their 24 scheduled MAC games.
The Central Michigan Chippewas won the regular season championship with an 18-5 conference mark and 36 overall wins. They will seek their 11th tournament title – only one of which (2013) has occurred since 2002. Meanwhile, Ohio won their first championship three years ago and is back to try for a second. The Bobcats finished 17-7 in league play and matched CMU’s 36 total victories.
In addition to the division champions, this deep group includes the Northern Illinois Huskies and Kent State Golden Flashes, who tied for the third seed with 15-9 records. NIU will try to win their program’s first MAC championship, while KSU seeks their first since 2008. Those two squads will be paired up with the Ball State Cardinals and Miami RedHawks in the first round of games. BSU and Miami have the last two MAC titles, and both won NCAA Regional games following their championship runs.
The final two teams in the tournament are the Akron Zips and Western Michigan Broncos. Like NIU, the Zips are gunning for their first-ever tournament title; Akron finished 12-12 in the MAC and 26-28 overall. WMU (11-13) edged out Toledo via tiebreaker for the final spot, and their reward is a opening-round game against CMU.
Four teams will not participate in the 2017 MAC Tournament: Toledo (24-34 overall; 11-13 MAC), Bowling Green (24-32; 10-14), Eastern Michigan (17-34; 3-20) and Buffalo (9-46; 3-21).
Below are brief synopses for each of the eight tournament teams, followed by the tournament schedule. We’ll provide daily recaps for each of the four days of action.
#1 Central Michigan Chippewas (36-13 overall, 18-5 MAC)
CMU’s forte in 2017 has been dominant pitching. The team is led by MAC Pitcher of the Year Rachael Knapp, who won a MAC-best 21 games and finished second with a 1.39 earned run average (ERA). She tossed 10 shutouts and 235 strikeouts while giving up only six home runs in 206 innings. Hanna Warren (11-5, 2.61 in 16 starts) is a fine second option. The Chips’ offense is middle-of-the-pack but does include two first-team All-MAC players in outfielder Allison Curtis (.394 average, five triples, 39 runs scored) and utility player Maison Kalina (.345 average).
#2 Ohio Bobcats (36-14 overall, 17-7 MAC)
The Bobcats’ offense can be spectacular. They averaged 7.4 runs in a nine-game win streak to close the regular season. They scored 7.0 per win while starting the season 13-2 and then 6.75 per win during a later 12-1 stretch. They led the MAC with a .295 average and 234 runs batted in. Morgan Geno powered out ten home runs and had 45 RBI, while Mikayla Cooper batted .358 with 16 doubles. Ohio’s top pitcher, Savannah Jo Dorsey, is pretty good, too. She led the MAC with a 1.23 ERA and 295 strikeouts.
#3 Northern Illinois Huskies (30-19 overall, 15-9 MAC)
NIU is hot at just the right time, as the Huskies won nine of their final ten games, including an upset of Wisconsin. They have posted 71 runs in that spread, which is a huge step up from the 4.4 runs they had been averaging prior. First-team All-MAC first baseman Kayti Grable led the offense with eight homers and 41 RBI. Her .469 on-base percentage was second in the MAC, and she struck out just ten times in 149 at-bats. Pitching can be a concern with a 3.12 ERA. Their primary starters, Tara Thacker and Alex Frenz, combined to give up 20 home runs and don’t strike out a ton of opponents.
#4 Kent State Golden Flashes (27-25 overall, 15-9 MAC)
KSU’s lineup is not very deep, but it is anchored by MAC Player of the Year Maddy Grimm. Grimm destroyed pitching to the tune of 18 homers, nine doubles, 53 RBI, 46 runs and a 1.308 OPS. She averaged a home run every 7.3 at-bats. If you’re looking for alternative options, Holly Speers homered 13 times and drove in 31. The Flashes’ pitching has allowed only ten runs with five shutouts in their last ten games, but defense is a huge concern. They have committed 83 errors and given up 52 unearned runs in 2017.
#5 Ball State Cardinals (30-26 overall, 14-10 MAC)
Ball State has been quite streaky in 2017. After starting the year 3-11, the team won 26 of its next 35 games. Unfortunately, they’ve gone the wrong way to close the season by losing six of their final seven games. The offense has produced only 12 runs in that time. The Cardinals will have to lean on Rachel Houck to recharge the bats after she led the team with 13 home runs, 16 doubles and 51 runs during the regular season. Four pitchers have started games for BSU, with Carolyn Wilmes (24) getting the most. However, she has a 3.72 ERA, so Darcie Huber or Alyssa Rothwell will need to step up.
#6 Miami RedHawks (29-22 overall, 14-10 MAC)
If Miami is going to win this tourney, you are probably going to see a ton of runs. The RedHawks’ 4.05 team ERA is the worst of the eight teams, and they have given up 48 home runs in 51 games. The offense is capable after leading the MAC with 259 runs and a .444 slugging percentage. Kat Lee was first-team All-MAC at third base with a .349 average, 14 doubles and 33 RBI. Miami will need production from Lauren Anderson and Johniann Wall (11 home runs) to add much needed extra runs.
#7 Akron Zips (26-28 overall, 12-12 MAC)
To earn their first tournament championship, Akron will rely on MAC Freshman of the Year Lexie Handley. Perhaps the MAC’s next great pitcher, Handley started 32 times and earned 19 wins and seven shutouts with a 2.30 ERA. She gave up only four homers in a MAC-best 210 innings and struck out 173 batters. If she cuts down on her walks (86), her ERA will drop even more. The Zips’ 193 runs on offense is fewest among the tournament teams. Ashley Sims (.370 average, 42 stolen bases) and Savannah Fruin (ten homers, 43 RBI) are the only significant threats.
#8 Western Michigan Broncos (23-27 overall, 11-13 MAC)
WMU snuck into the tournament after winning two of three games in Toledo and sweeping a doubleheader against Ball State on the final day of the regular season. The Broncos’ primary offensive weapon is Kelsea Cichocki, who led the MAC with a .404 batting average. She posted 23 extra base hits and 45 RBI in 156 at-bats. Three WMU pitchers started at least ten games. That group was led by Anissa Sanchez, who won eight times with a team-best 2.86 ERA.
2017 MAC Softball Tournament Schedule (All times listed are Eastern)
Wednesday, May 10
(10:30 a.m.) Game 1 - #4 Kent State vs. #5 Ball State
(1:00 p.m.) Game 2 - #1 Central Michigan vs. #8 Western Michigan
(3:30 p.m.) Game 3 - #2 Ohio vs. #7 Akron
(6:00 p.m.) Game 4 - #3 Northern Illinois vs. #6 Miami
Thursday, May 11
(10:30 a.m.) Game 5 – Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser (elimination game)
(1:00 p.m.) Game 6 – Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner
(3:30 p.m.) Game 7 – Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner
(6:00 p.m.) Game 8 – Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser (elimination game)
Friday, May 12
(10:30 a.m.) Game 9 – Game 5 winner vs. Game 7 loser (elimination game)
(1:00 p.m.) Game 10 – Game 8 winner vs. Game 6 loser (elimination game)
(3:30 p.m.) Game 11 – Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner
(6:00 p.m.) Game 12 – Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner (elimination game)
Saturday, May 13
(10:30 a.m.) Game 13 – Game 11 loser vs. Game 12 winner (elimination game)
(1:00 p.m.) Game 14 – Game 11 winner vs. Game 13 winner (Championship game)
Note: if the Game 13 winner also wins Game 14, then a winner-take-all championship game will be played 30 minutes following Game 14.