TIFTON — Tonight in the southwestern corner of Utah, not far from the bright lights of Las Vegas, the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College Fillies are looking to start their own long run on stage.
The Fillies are in the NJCAA national softball tournament and start play at 9:30 p.m., Eastern Time, against another school from far away: the College of Central Florida. After storming through the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association playoffs, the Fillies are a part of nationals for the first time since 2002.
ABAC is the 15th seed in the bracket. Central Florida is No. 2.
“We have to play like I know we can,” said head coach Jennifer Walls, whose team bounced back from a 17-31 record in 2018 to 41-14 this year. “I told the girls let’s go out there and make the most of it. These girls have been believers in themselves.”
Central Florida and ABAC have met once this season. The Lady Patriots won on Jan. 26, the fourth of four games ABAC played in the Sunshine State during opening weekend. ABAC was 2-2 after that loss and fell to 2-5 at the start of February.
ABAC had another rough patch later in the month, but since then, they and Central Florida are neck-and-neck. Beginning Mar. 1, the Fillies have the higher winning percentage, .935 to .923.
The contest will be a battle of power hitting versus power pitching.
Central Florida has a team average of .369 this year, according to NJCAA stats, with 86 home runs. In contact, the Fillies have only surrendered 70 earned runs and just 11 four-baggers. They sport an earned run average of 1.43.
If the Fillies make it past Central Florida, they play Thursday at 4:30 p.m. against either Howard (Tex.) or Butler (Kan.). Even if ABAC falters, they get another shot in the losers bracket. That game would be Thursday at 7 p.m. and would also be against either Howard or Butler.
The prep time for tournament games is only slightly less than that going into the competition.
ABAC had to make travel plans before it had many firm details. The Fillies knew they were to play today, but neither an exact time nor an opponent were released until the weekend. Walls said the wait was because some tournaments did not finish until the end of last week.
Before the brackets were announced Walls had a feeling they would get either the 16th or 15th seed. While not ideal, the difference between the two is the difference between the 51-2 record Seminole State (Okla.) and their opponent, College of Central Florida, which has a slightly more believable mark of 54-9.
Not that the record matters to Walls.
“Playoffs take a mind of its own,” she said. “We have nothing to lose when we go out there.”
ABAC is riding a hotter streak entering this tournament. They have won 11 straight games while the Lady Patriots have taken their last five.
While some conferences waited until the last minute to finish up, ABAC’s last game was May 4. They will go 18 days between games.
“It’s been good,” said Walls of the extended break. “Right after the conf[erence] tournament, I gave the girls a few days off.” They had a heavy practice last Wednesday, with lighter ones until their flight to Utah.
Utah will be a new experience, not just softball-wise. “Some of these girls have never flown before,” said Walls.
ABAC will be riding considerable talent into nationals.
Taylor Layfield, the GCAA’s Player of the Year, went 16-5 in the circle with a 1.30 ERA. As a hitter, Layfield led the squad with a .418 average, slugging 12 home runs and driving in 49 runners. Aiding the cause are Alexis Meadows (.349 average, 29 RBIs, 25 stolen bases), Shyann Dorough (.327 average, 26 RBIs), Braxton Hill (30 RBIs), Jamilah Johnson (22 RBIs) and Sutton Bridges (.331 average).
Layfield’s equal as a pitcher is Samantha Davis, who went 8-1 with an ERA of 1.34.