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Blue Hawks ready for Cougars

Press Photo by Meaghan MacDonald Dickinson State junior Janell LaRont, middle right, is congratulated after hitting a home run against Black Hills State (S.D.) on April 21 at Dickinson’s North Complex.

On Tuesday, members of the Dickinson State softball team huddled around a computer waiting to see where the team was going to play in the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round.

“As soon as the screen came up, we were like, ‘Yeah, we know where we are going,’” DSU junior Regan Lawrence said about playing at College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho.

The excitement lasted until the Dickinson State softball team discovered its first opponent — Cal State San Marcos (Calif.). The Blue Hawks have played the Cougars in the postseason in each of the previous two years. Neither meeting resulted in a DSU win.

“We were like ‘Come on, give us a break,’” Lawrence said with a smile.

The Blue Hawks are the No. 4 seed in the College of Idaho bracket, while the Cougars are in the No. 1 spot. DSU and CSSM play at 4 p.m. Monday.

Despite being matched up with CSSM for the third time in three years, DSU believes it has a chance of winning this time around. In their past two games, the Cougars outscored the Blue Hawks 14-3.

“We are more excited to play them again, because they beat us out of the tournament last year,” DSU sophomore Rebecca Lopez said. “I feel we are a little better than we were last year and we’ll have more of a chance.”

DSU head coach Kristen Fleury wasn’t surprised about the first-round matchup with CSSM. She knew, regardless of the name of the team, it was going to be a quality opponent.

The Blue Hawks (39-13) finished the regular season and North Star Athletic Association-Frontier Conference tournament on a 22-game win streak. CSSM is ranked No. 5 in the nation and enter the tournament with a 38-7-1 record after taking runner-up in the Association of Independent Institutions conference tournament.

“With the new setup, it’s kind of difficult not knowing (the opposition) until the last minute,” she said. “We are excited about it. We know some of the things San Marcos does, so hopefully we can take some of the things in the past that we’ve done against and be more successful this go-around.”

DSU’s 2013 postseason ended with back-to-back losses in St. Joseph, Mo., during the opening round of the national tournament. That team consisted of several underclassmen, especially freshman. DSU had five sophomore and three freshmen starters last year.

Fleury said the year of experience and having that experience should bode well for the Blue Hawks.

“That’s huge for us right now,” Fleury said. “Pretty much everyone has been on that big stage, except for our freshmen. They are excited, and with all the kids that have been there before, they are able to understand and know what it’s going to be like. They can hopefully prepare the underclassmen for that. I said earlier on, in the first part of the season, that was going to be huge for us. The experience that we got last year from it.”

Forgetting first-half woes

DSU lost its first four games of the season.

That 0-4 record is now only a distant memory as it was the longest losing streak the Blue Hawks had all season. DSU won 27 of its final 29 games.

The key to getting on a roll in the final stretch has been pitching.

DSU’s pitching staff — which is led by Lawrence, who has 21-4 record — allowed an average of 2.4 runs in the final 29 games. The Blue Hawks have picked up seven shutouts during that stretch. Junior Tiffany Morgan has a 10-0 record with a 2.70 earned-run average and 41 strikeouts.

Lawrence, who was named the conference tournament’s most valuable player after going 3-0, has a 1.76 ERA and 167 strikeouts over 187 innings. However, Lawrence admitted most of the credit for her pitching goes to her catchers Brianna Grayson and Claudia Torres.

“A lot of it is my catchers. They know what to call, they know how to read batters and they are the boss, I just throw the pitches,” Lawrence said.

DSU’s bats haven’t been lacking in the second half of the season either. In its final 29 games, the Blue Hawks have averaged 8.4 runs per game.

Sophomore shortstop Alex Vargas has a team-high .461 batting average with 13 doubles, six home runs, three triples, 57 RBI and 41 runs scored. Senior first baseman Lindsay Sullivan, who missed last season with an ACL injury, has a .436 average with 14 doubles, six home runs, 54 RBI and 21 runs scored. Junior Janell LaRont posted a .404 average, five home runs, five doubles, three triples and 30 RBI. Grayson posted a .390 average with five doubles, six triples, two home runs and 32 RBI.

With the amount of success in the circle and at the plate, the Blue Hawks aren’t changing anything in their daily routines.

“We are kind of superstitious, so we’ve been doing the same thing over and over again,” said Lopez, who posted a .420 average with 19 doubles, three home runs, two triples, 36 RBI and scored a team-high 55 runs.

“It has been working.”

Building chemistry

With a majority of the team returning and incoming freshmen thrown into the mix, it took a couple of weeks for DSU to develop its chemistry.

Once the team found its groove, there wasn’t much the opposition could do.

“This year has been better than my other two years that I’ve been here,” Lawrence said. “We are really close as a team and team chemistry helps a lot when you are really successful with it.”

Though the Blue Hawks are keeping their eyes on the prize, Lopez said the team doesn’t stay serious all the time.

DSU prefers to keep the game fun.

“The chemistry is phenomenal,” Lopez said with a smile. “I just love being around every single girl on this team. It’s so much fun. Literally, there’s never a dull moment.”