When the Tucson Regional gets started on Friday afternoon at Hillenbrand Stadium, one team will be playing in the postseason for the first time in program history.
But the fact they’re in Tucson will help settle those butterflies a little bit.
“Right when it popped up on the screen where we were going, all the girls had that sense of calmness and excitement saying ‘Hey we’ve been here before’,” Saint Francis Red Flash head coach Jennifer Patrick-Swift said on Thursday. “We’re good, let’s go be us and do our thing. It’s just getting a chance to get out here to play again is something that they were excited about.”
SFU visited Tucson and faced the Arizona Wildcats and March 5th, 2016, dropping that Wildcat Invitational game 6-4.
“We faced (Danielle) O’Toole last year, so we’ve seen her,” Patrick-Swift added. “We’re prepared from last year having played here and having played them here. We’re just hoping for a little different outcome if we face them this time.”
“I just remember being really excited,” senior pitcher Ethel Santai recalled. “It was on spring break and we loved coming here to the warm weather and it was just a really good experience for the whole team, especially for the underclassmen getting to play such a great program at such a nice facility. I think it’s going to give us a little more comfort for this tournament.”
“Yeah I think we’re definitely more prepared having played here,” senior catcher Kindra Witthus added. “We’ve played at a lot of big stadiums last year and this year so I think we’re definitely prepared.”
That game against Arizona had seven underclassmen starting for Saint Francis, so they certainly have experience on their side this time around.
“This year in this stage they can say we’ve been here before and it’s not first-time jitters,” Patrick-Swift tacked on.
It’s been a steady road to this moment for the Red Flash. Ever since Patrick-Swift took over as the head coach in 2012, they’ve slowly climbed up the NEC standings, ultimately finishing undefeated in conference play this year.
“That was obviously one of our goals this year was to win the conference regular season, win the tournament so we could get the bid to come to regionals, and that was something that we talked about often and that was our expectation,” Patrick-Swift said of her team’s mindset throughout the year. “When it actually happened it was alright, this is our goal, we checked that box so let’s set a new goal, come here, and play well.”
Saint Francis has arrived in the postseason thanks to the new recruiting outlook Patrick-Swift brought to the program, which is highlighted by several seniors that end their college career with this postseason trip.
“I know the first time l ever met coach Patrick on my recruiting visit, she said she wanted us to come do something that had never been done in this program,” Santai said. “So this has been something I’ve been thinking about since I was 16 years old.”
“Yeah it’s been pretty special,” Witthus added. “To go out on a senior year like this is pretty special so we’re excited.”
SFU almost made it last year, but two one-run losses in the NEC Tournament kept them out of the NCAA Tournament.
“Last year we had a tough loss in the NEC Tournament, so that was pretty heartbreaking,” Witthus said. “So we just didn’t want it to happen again so we did everything we could to get here and we definitely felt it coming.”
The Red Flash begins with the South Carolina Gamecocks, who are making their fifth-consecutive Regional appearance, but have not advanced to Super Regional play under their current coach. And the Red Flash know what they have to do to stay in the winner’s bracket in Tucson.
“The big thing is we just have to be ourselves,” Patrick-Swift stated. “We’ve said all along it doesn’t matter what the venue, it doesn’t matter what the stage, doesn’t matter who’s in the other dugout. If we go out and play our game which is good pitching and being aggressive in the box.”
“We kind of live and die by the big inning,” coach continued. “Our girls believe that it might not happen in the first, it might happen in the seventh, but we know one of the innings we’re going to find a way to breakthrough so they keep a calm and are even-keeled throughout that. So if we just focus on who we are and remember that the bases are 60 feet here just like they are at home we’ll be okay.”
Who they are has definitely changed over the last couple of years.
“The expectation that when you step on this field every time, you’re expecting to win,” Patrick-Swift explained. “It doesn’t matter how big or small the setting, but when we get on the field we’re gonna get after it. It took a couple of years to have that expectation fully change, but the last two years...we realized that not only can we play with (Power Five Conference) teams, but we can beat these teams, and I think that just helped solidify what my goals were and from a recruiting standpoint be like ‘Hey, we can do this’.”
“Once it started happening on the field, they were just like let’s do that again, give me more. It’s been a lot of hardwork and dedication, but we’re super excited for how far we have come the last six years.”