No. 19 Lady Owls ‘locked in,’ ready for NAIA opener

William Woods faces No. 22 Davenport on Monday in Grand Rapids, Michigan

There was no hard surface around for William Woods University softball coach Tracy Gastineau to strike in a superstitious manner.

With her Lady Owls stretching just behind her before Wednesday’s practice at Backer Sports Complex, Gastineau repeatedly “knocked on wood” when speaking of her team’s health, its recent stretch of dominant play and the focus with which it’s been playing.

No. 19 William Woods is the second seed in the Davenport bracket and will clash with host Davenport University — which is the third seed and ranked 22nd — in the NAIA Opening Round at noon Monday in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“(They’re) pretty locked in,” Gastineau said of her squad. “Of course I’m a coach and I’m superstitious, and I’m going to knock on wood saying this, but pitching continues to be really good and we’ve gotten timely hits.”

The winner will play either top-seeded and third-ranked Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) (46-3-1) or No. 4 seed Huntington (Ind.) (31-21) at noon Tuesday in the double-elimination format.

William Woods (39-15) enters Monday’s matchup as the American Midwest Conference regular-season and tournament champions. The Lady Owls are riding a remarkable hot stretch, winners of 13 in a row and 22 of their last 23.

William Woods preceded its sizzling streak by dropping six of seven, with most of the damage coming against high-level opponents during a spring-break trip to Alabama. The Lady Owls were swept in doubleheaders by Spring Hill (Ala.) College and William Carey (Miss.) University — ranked third and ninth, respectively, at the time — and split a pair with the University of Mobile (Ala.), which was receiving votes in the national poll.

Gastineau and her players credited the quality of competition they were playing for the brief downturn, while Gastineau mentioned the team’s poor defensive play during that span. The five losses, though, were by three runs or less, an indication to some players that William Woods wasn’t as far off from where it wanted to be as it might seem.

“I think it’s just that we faced tough competition down there and (we came out) knowing we could play with them and come back to conference and play well,” junior pitcher Julie Scheer said. “It wasn’t six losses, but six different lessons.”

The Lady Owls returned from that disheartening trip and ran off nine straight wins while outscoring its opponents by an overwhelming 82-4.

The senior pitching duo of MacKenzie Bowden and Becca Schemmer continues to be a strong point for William Woods, but the Lady Owls’ bats have been particularly potent.

“We obviously have dominant pitching, but offense wins games,” said senior left fielder Lindsey LeCuru, an all-AMC selection. “Becca and MacKenzie have been dominating throughout the season, but our offense has really helped, too.”

Gastineau — coaching in her sixth NAIA tournament — made a point of crafting a lineup that could protect LeCuru, a four-year starter and occupant of the cleanup spot in the Lady Owls’ lineup.

“… Conference teams were going to know her and not let her beat them,” Gastineau said. “Smart teams won’t allow her to beat them year after year, so we needed to find that protection around her.”

The strategy has materialized in a William Woods squad that possesses a .315 batting average. LeCuru and junior first baseman Kacey Scharnhorst share the team lead with 38 RBIs, while sophomore designated player Emily Murphy emerged this season and tops the Lady Owls with a .477 average.

Murphy smacked a pair of home runs in William Woods’ come-from-behind, 3-2 win over Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) University in the AMC quarterfinals, then homered again in a 6-3 victory over Park University in the semifinals.

Gastineau thinks the softball looks as big as a “beach ball” to Murphy right now.

Murphy — an all-AMC honorable-mention choice — agreed with that assessment.

“I feel like I’m seeing the ball really well and my timing is really good and I’m just seeing the right pitches,” Murphy said.

Meanwhile, the trio of Bowden, Schemmer and Scheer have combined for a 1.46 ERA. Bowden — the AMC pitcher of the year — is 20-7 with a 0.90 ERA and 261 strikeouts, while Schemmer is 12-8 and has won her last eight starts.

Scheer — a first-year transfer from East Central Community College in Union — is a perfect 7-0 with a 0.89 ERA. Gastineau noted that Scheer’s arrival deepened an already effective staff.

“I’ve said all year that Julie is a really, really good pitcher with really quality stuff and she’s been limited because she’s behind two senior pitchers that are having, really, the best years,” Gastineau said. “… I’m excited for her because she’s got really good stuff.”

Gastineau admitted to not knowing much about Davenport, besides what she can glean from statistics. And what Gastineau sees is many similarities with her own team.

The Lady Panthers (36-8) won the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles, and enter NAIA play batting .349 as a team. Junior shortstop KC Dunne is hitting .482 with 44 RBIs to guide Davenport, while senior outfielder Amber Getty posts a .417 average.

Freshman pitcher Emily Maves boasts an 18-4 record with a 1.74 ERA and 168 strikeouts. Fellow freshman hurler Alyssa Eastman is 16-2 with a 2.04 ERA.

“They seem to be a scrappy team; they won their conference tournament and if you play anywhere in college, you have to be pretty good to do that,” Gastineau said. “I would expect every single game there to be tough and we’re going to have to play well, and the team that’s going to come out of that is the team that plays well.

“That’s what you get to the postseason for.”

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