Spartanburg, S.C. – Surrounded by a throng of family, friends and Spartan fans, the USC Upstate softball team gathered at Buffalo Wild Wings in Spartanburg to watch the NCAA Selection Show on ESPNU Sunday night. One day after winning two games against Lipscomb on Championship Saturday to claim the A-Sun Tournament title and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, Upstate learned it will open the Tuscaloosa Regional Friday against Western Kentucky hosted by the defending National Champions, Alabama Crimson Tide.
Upstate enters the NCAA Tournament with a 41-10 record, reaching the 40-win plateau for the third time in the last four seasons. However, this year's team did it against much stiffer competition. Two of the three losses to non-conference foes were against No. 3 Florida and No. 16 Kentucky, the latter an 11-inning marathon at Cyrill Stadium in February.
Upstate will open the NCAA Tournament against Western Kentucky out of the Sun Belt Conference. The Hilltoppers stand 41-16 on the year. The No. 10 national seed Alabama Crimson Tide will host the Regional. Alabama is the defending National Champions and own a 42-13 record. The Crimson Tide will face Jacksonville State in their opening round game. The Gamecocks own a 30-25 record and won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship.
Upstate faced two of the NCAA Tournament's Top 16 seeds this season, losing at No. 2 seed Florida and dropping a thrilling 11-inning marathon to No. 12 seed Kentucky at Cyrill Stadium in February.
This year was a season of firsts for Upstate, and it started back in October when the Spartans hosted the NPF All-Star traveling team and Georgia during the second weekend of October. It continued as Upstate hosted three tournaments at Cyrill Stadium with then-No. 20 Kentucky coming to Spartanburg for the Coke Zero Spartan Classic Feb. 23-24. In a tremendous battle, Upstate opened a 4-0 lead, fell behind and rallied to send the game into extra innings before falling to the Wildcats in 11 innings.
Upstate opened A-Sun play against North Florida with a 1-0 loss. The Spartans then rattled off 16 straight A-Sun wins to stake claim on first place in the league standings. The winning streak was so good that Upstate secured its first Top 25 national ranking in a major Top 25 poll when it entered the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 poll at No. 24 on April 9. The softball team became the first Upstate team to achieve a national Top 25 ranking in a major poll since the university moved its athletic program to Division I in 2007-08.
Upstate also positioned itself strongly in the NCAA RPI, reaching as high as No. 37 in the RPI rankings, due in large part to the strength of its schedule in and out of conference. The Spartans maintained their position as the top-rated A-Sun school in every RPI ranking released by the NCAA this year.
As good as the game against Kentucky was, Upstate's 8-5 victory at perennial national power Georgia on April 17 was even better. The Spartans fell behind early in the game, but rallied for the win behind the bat of senior catcher Ericka Harris (Piedmont, S.C.). Harris drove in the game's eventual winning run, then punctuated the victory with a two-run home run in the seventh.
Upstate ascended to the top of the NCAA statistical rankings in batting average in early April and for the last three weeks have been the top-ranked defense in the nation. The Spartans will enter the NCAA Tournament with a .983 fielding percentage.
Upstate found its power stroke in 2013. The Spartans have belted 54 home runs this year, breaking the all-time season record for home runs of 48 hit by the 1999 squad and crushing the Division I era school record of 35 hit in 2011.
Despite the strong season, Upstate closed out the regular season in a struggle to maintain its lead in the A-Sun. The Spartans dropped two games at Lipscomb, two at Florida Gulf Coast and lost on the road at ETSU to fall out of first place. They had a three-game series against Mercer, the eighth-place team in the A-Sun, washed out by rain and when North Florida claimed a win against Stetson in the last week of the season, the Ospreys claimed the A-Sun regular season championship by just a half a game over Upstate. Upstate finished the regular season with a 37-9 overall record and a 17-6 mark in the A-Sun.
Upstate was well-represented when the A-Sun announced its postseason awards last week prior to the start of the A-Sun Tournament. Jamie Ujvari (Niceville, Fla.) was named the A-Sun Freshman of the Year and First Team All-Conference. She was joined on the all-conference team by first team selections Meredith Barnes (Salem, Ore.), Maddison Kieffer (Middleburg, Fla.) and Shellie Robinson (DeLand, Fla.) and second team selection Cheyenne Griffin (Moore, S.C.). Kieffer also earned A-Sun Academic All-Conference honors.
Upstate entered the A-Sun Tournament as the No. 2 seed and with a No. 47 RPI ranking and in need of at least an appearance in the A-Sun Championship to have a chance at an at-large bid if the Spartans were not successful in winning the conference tournament. Instead, Upstate rattled off three straight wins in a span of 21 hours from Friday night to Saturday afternoon to claim the A-Sun Tournament title and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Here was Upstate's road to the NCAA Tournament and __ Regional:
Road to the NCAA Tournament
May 9 – Upstate 5, Stetson 1
Upstate got a strong outing from A-Sun Freshman of the Year Jamie Ujvari and timely hitting from Meredith Barnes to take a 5-1 victory over Stetson in the Spartans' A-Sun Tournament opener. Upstate scored a run in the first, saw Stetson tie the game in the fourth, and scored four runs over the fifth and sixth innings to take the win. Ujvari went the distance, allowing a run on four hits with six strikeouts to push the Spartans into the winner's bracket championship game against Lipscomb.
May 10 – Lipscomb 4, Upstate 2
Upstate fell behind 2-0, then rallied to tie the game on Cheyenne Griffin's two-run home run in the fourth against A-Sun Tournament host Lipscomb. However, Lipscomb responded with a two-run home run in the top of the seventh and Upstate couldn't push anything across in the bottom of the frame, taking the 4-2 loss from the Lady Bisons.
May 10 – Upstate 9, North Florida 2
With its back to the wall and facing elimination in the final elimination game of the A-Sun Tournament prior to Championship Saturday, Upstate's Jamie Ujvari took a perfect game into the seventh inning to lead Upstate to a 9-2 victory over North Florida. Ujvari struck out 11 along the way and despite allowing a pair of solo home runs in the seventh, dominated the Ospreys. She also got a lot of help by the Upstate bats. The Spartans finally busted out its potent offensive lineup, getting three home runs, one each from Meredith Barnes, Cheyenne Griffin and Dana Landers, in the offensive explosion. Upstate scored in each of the first four innings and cruised to the win to reach Championship Saturday and a rematch against Lipscomb.
May 11 – Upstate 4, Lipscomb 1
Facing a Lipscomb team that it had lost five of the last six games to in the all-time series and having to win two games on the Lady Bisons' home field, Upstate set the tone early in the first game of Championship Saturday. The Spartans scored three runs on back-to-back home runs from Shellie Robinson and Cheyenne Griffin in the first inning to open a 3-0 lead, took a 4-0 lead with a run in the second, and held off Lipscomb for the 4-1 win to force a deciding game for the A-Sun Tournament title. Anna Miller tossed a complete game, allowing just one run on five hits to secure her first win since tossing 6 1/3 innings of relief in the 8-5 victory at Georgia.
May 11 – Upstate 7, Lipscomb 5
In the championship game of the A-Sun Tournament, Upstate fell behind after a two-run home run in the top of the first inning. However, the resilient Spartans rallied to score five runs in the bottom of the first to take the wind out of the Lady Bisons' sails and grab control of the game. Upstate opened a 7-2 lead on Meredith Barnes' two-run single in the third. Lipscomb mounted a rally and cut the lead to 7-5 in the sixth, setting up a tension-filled seventh inning. In the top of the seventh and with Jamie Ujvari in the circle, Dana Landers came up with the defensive play of the tournament when she ranged behind second base and into shallow center field to make a diving play on a blooper for the first out of the inning. Lipscomb put runners on first and second with two outs, but Ujvari got a fly out to Shellie Robinson in center field to end the game and deliver the championship for the Spartans.
Due in large part to her performance in the final three games of the tournament, Cheyenne Griffin was named the A-Sun Tournament Most Valuable Player. She belted three home runs and a triple to go along with six RBIs in the final three games to lead the Spartans offensively. She was joined on the all-tournament team by Meredith Barnes, Shellie Robinson and Jamie Ujvari.