Even going through some significant changes since last season, the Claflin University softball team could find itself in somewhat familiar territory this postseason - playing for a conference title.
The Lady Panthers won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Softball Championship in 2017 and took third in the 2018 edition of the postseason tournament.
But this season, Claflin transitioned to play full-time in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA). There were questions about how the team would respond.
The graduation of former SIAC Pitcher of the Year Tiaria Norman off the 2018 team raised questions about how much success Claflin pitching would have in 2019.
However, transitioning well through the changes, the Lady Panthers promptly went 18-0 through an unbeaten CIAA regular-season schedule.
On Monday, Claflin (32-17 overall, 18-0 in CIAA) begins play in its first CIAA Softball Championship tournament at Moyer Park in Salem, Virginia. The Lady Panthers play at noon against Virginia Union, just 4 wins away from possibly playing for a title in their new league.
"CIAA teams knew about how good we were coming in; but Chowan (University) returned 7 or 8 starters, they've won it (CIAA Softball Championship) two years in a row and had a 29-game winning streak in conference," Claflin head coach James "Marty" Kinard said, in his eighth year on staff, third leading the Lady Panthers, and first without the 'interim head coach' tag. "They were predicted to win. When we played them, we took care of business (17-8 win in Elizabeth City, North Carolina) and played very well.
"It's just been a fun season in a new conference, facing new opponents. As we got going, started rolling, the goal became to remain undefeated all the way through. We accomplished that."
With the sweep of the conference, Claflin won the Southern Division title for the regular season. Meanwhile, Chowan (19-20 record, 15-2 in conference, 10-0 in divisional play) won the Northern Division title. Both are No. 1 seeds in the conference tournament bracket, which includes only the top 4 teams from each division (Claflin, Chowan, Winston-Salem State, Virginia State, Virginia Union, Johnson C. Smith, Elizabeth City State and Fayetteville State).
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Along the way this season, Claflin players have posted impressive statistical numbers. Senior first baseman Kayla Cato has led the Lady Panthers on offense, batting for a .406 average with team highs in hits (45), runs scored (51), doubles (14), triples (5), home runs (11) and RBI (58). She also went a perfect 12-for-12 in stolen bases. Freshman infielder Chaston Huntly and senior pitcher/outfielder LaKaylin Lee are both batting with a .383 average. Huntly has 51 hits, 33 runs scored, 7 doubles, 3 triples, a home run, 39 RBI. Meanwhile, Lee has 49 hits, 49 runs scored, 8 doubles, 4 triples, 4 home runs, 24 RBI, and 28 stolen bases in 29 attempts. Sophomore infielder Jada Ames is batting for a .298 average, with 36 hits, 29 runs scored, 7 doubles, 2 triples, 4 home runs and 29 RBI.
"We've got speed on the bases, but we've got to get on first," Kinard said. "We've got timely hitting too.
"But, we've just got to put it together down the stretch here."
Pitching questions in the absence of Norman were answered by two freshmen. Shaniya Thomas carries a 2.07 ERA, a 12-1 record with 6 saves, collecting 114 strikeouts, while allowing 66 hits in 101-and-a-third innings of work. Bre'Zhay Chambers carries a 3.06 ERA, with a 14-9 record, having collected 93 strikeouts and allowed 102 hits in 107-and-2-thirds innings of work.
"Both pitchers have thrown the ball well for us and they're going to lead us into the tournament and hopefully give us a chance to win," Kinard said. "We've got 8 seniors who were on that 2017 SIAC Softball Championship team, and they had to deal with it last year, knowing we had that target on our back in every conference game.
"We know the target is on our back again, heading to the conference tournament. But, it's not about how well the other team plays, it's about how we play. Our defense has played well, keeping us Top 40 in the nation in fielding percentage. That and timely hitting has helped us win ballgames."
Kinard sees two-time defending champion Chowan and Winston-Salem State as the biggest possible obstacles on the way to possibly winning a CIAA Softball Championship this week.
Chowan had 7 players named to the CIAA Preseason All-Conference Team. Claflin had none. However, Chowan was predicted to finish first in the conference, with Claflin predicted to finish second.
"We used that (absence of a single Lady Panther on the preseason team) as some motivation," Kinard said. "Our hashtag is #RiseAboveTheExpectations - so they predicted for us to be No. 2, behind Chowan, and we are using that as motivation to rise above No. 2.
"Every game we talked about getting better to put ourselves in the best position possible once we get to the conference tournament. Being ranked No. 10 in the regional poll is good, but we want to go to the conference tournament and earn that regional bid."
The CIAA Softball Championship title game is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Wednesday.