The person least surprised by Hampton University softball's first conference title and NCAA tournament berth in 17 years is head coach Treena Peel.
"That's been the goal since I got to Hampton," Peel said Monday, "but knowing this year's team and the talent that we have, from the beginning I knew we were the best team. It was just a matter of putting it all together every game day. We did that pretty consistently throughout the season. It's not surprising. It's just that I feel great that we were able to execute and accomplish our goal."
The Lady Pirates (34-24) were placed in the Gainesville, Fla., regional, where they face second-ranked and Southeastern Conference champ Florida (52-7) on Friday at 6 p.m. The four-team regional also includes Big East champ South Florida (43-14) and Southern Conference champ Georgia Southern (32-27).
"Florida's a great team," Peel said. "But that's why you play the game. You never know what's going to happen. Hopefully, we come out and have the game of our life and we end up victorious."
Hampton didn't need a heroic effort to win its first MEAC title since 1996 — its first season in Division I — last week in Ormond Beach, Fla. The Lady Pirates simply had to duplicate their performances in recent weeks.
HU finished the season on a 15-3 tear after losing a doubleheader to George Mason on April 9.
"We're playing defense better and our pitchers are hitting their spots more consistently, keeping batters off balance," Peel said. "Great defense, great pitching and timely hitting is really the combination for success. We've done all those three things lately and that's why we've been so successful."
Freshman Bobbi Langlois pitched the championship game, a 7-3 win against rival Norfolk State after the Spartans had beaten HU ace Jailynn Jackson and forced a second game Saturday. Freshman first baseman Taylor McCoy was named the tournament's outstanding player.
The MEAC title and NCAA berth are steps in Hampton's turnaround under Peel. In three years, the Pirates improved from 13 wins to 34, with a young roster assembled from all over the country.
Peel, a 33-year-old Colorado native, was an assistant at Mississippi Valley State, Maryland and George Washington before coming to HU. She was a three-time All-SEC player at LSU and a second-team All-American.
She was lured by HU's facilities and administrative support, which provided the resources to recruit nationally and to schedule ambitiously. The roster has players from California, Arizona, Texas and Ohio. Just three holdovers remain from when Peel arrived.
"Coming in as a new coach and trying to change the culture of a program, it takes a little while," she said. "Some kids transferred out and some kids got released, but the core of this team are my recruits.
"Last year's team started to buy in and I think this year's team was fully committed and knew that we were capable of doing great things if we all were on the same page on a day-to-day basis."
McCoy, from Riverview, Fla., was the MEAC's third-leading hitter (.404) and No. 5 in RBI (42). All-conference shortstop Margaret Wilkins is from Tustin, Calif., by way of Oregon State, and sophomore third baseman Kerissa Burruel is from Phoenix.
Langlois is from Ohio, freshman centerfielder Diamond Ponds is from Riverside, Calif., and sophomore second baseman Bianca Vallejo is from Arizona.
"I'm not sure that we out-recruited anybody for them, but we get out and travel to some places that some other schools do not go to," Peel said.
Jackson, the MEAC's Pitcher of the Year, is the only local recruit. The sophomore from First Colonial in Virginia Beach is 26-11 and set a school record this season with 248 strikeouts.
HU played tournaments in Baton Rouge, New Mexico, North Carolina and Baltimore before diving into the MEAC schedule. The Lady Pirates went 16-2 in league play.
"I feel like that's what prepared us for competition in conference," Peel said, "and hopefully that will get us prepared for postseason play."
Florida is the No. 2 seed in the tournament behind Oklahoma. The Gators are led by All-SEC pitcher Hannah Rogers (29-5, 1.59 ERA) and designated player Lauren Haeger (.323 BA, 17 HR, 61 RBI). Freshman Kelsey Stewart (.398 BA, 55 R, 32 steals) is one of the SEC's best hitters.
"We've got nothing to lose," Peel said, "so we can pretty much come out with a shock-the-world mentality and play with heart and passion and hope everything goes our way."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun