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DSU softball returns to NAIA softball playoffs

After missing the tournament in 2017, the Dickinson State softball team is back in the NAIA playoff bracket.

The Blue Hawks captured a conference tournament victory this past weekend, defeating the University of Jamestown in a three-game series. On Tuesday, May 8, the team learned it's first-round fate.

The No. 4 Dickinson State team will square off with No. 1 Hope International University (Calif.) at host Fayette, Mo. on Monday, May 14 at 2 p.m. CST.

"Our program has been there quite a few times. When you look back, we've been there nine of the past 12 years, so this is something as a coaching staff that we're used to. We've been in a lot of big games," Dickinson State head coach Kristen Fleury said. "In 2009, the program finished third in the nation. Going into this weekend, we have nothing to lose. We were never expected to be here, but it's not a shocker and it's not new to us that we are in this position."

While the Blue Hawks (30-19) softball program has an arsenal of experience in the national tournament, the Royals (46-9) are participating for the first time.

Dickinson State might have one more advantage over the Golden State Athletic Conference champions.

"You're taking a group of California, west coast kids to the middle of nowhere in Missouri," Fleury said. "Location, or anything like that, we probably have the upper hand on that side of things."

No matter where the teams meet, the Royals will be a challenge to face. In the May 8 NAIA softball coaches poll, Hope Christian was ranked 6th in the nation. Jamestown was ranked 11th, while DSU did not appear.

The team has two starting pitchers with sub 1.35 ERAs, Jamie Ponce and Anessa Cepeda. The third starter, Taylor Pierce, has seen the most time on the mound and boasts a 2.72 ERA. Over 28 games, Pierce has struck out 85 batters.

Hope International is just as much a threat at the plate, with 17 members of the roster batting over .300. Senior Ally Painter has appeared in all 55 games this season, earning a .327 batting average, aided by nine doubles.

Senior Justice Walker had an at-bat in all but one game this season, accruing a .347 batting average and a conference-high 15 home runs, sixth most in all of Division I. She also has a 100 percent fielding percentage, the best in the NAIA.

The teams faced off last season in Arizona at the spring tournament. The Royals defeated Dickinson State 8-0 in a five-inning no hitter.

"They have a new coaching staff, they're disciplined, they do all the right things on both sides of the game," Fleury said. "They ran circles around us and they've had a lot of success this year."

While the Blue Hawks have been building towards their best ball, the Royals had a setback late in the season. Hope International dropped three consecutive games from April 18-21, a big deal for a team that only lost nine matchups on the season.

"Every team is different throughout the year," Fleury said. "We had a horrible start, we were 1-7, and now we've come together and we've won some games. ... We beat two top-25 teams to get to this point, so when you look at rankings, when you look at records, it's all a matter of who shows up for that game."

Hoping to stretch out their success from last weekend, the Blue Hawks looking to keep up what has gotten them this far.

"The team really bought in to what we've been preaching all year," Fleury said of the conference tournament. "We knew as a coaching staff that we hadn't reached our peak. If there was an opportunity for us to do it, there would be no better time than the conference tournament with a trip to the national tournament on the line. They hit their peak, they bought in and they locked in for all six games that we played."