FLC softball finds its dance partner

Skyhawks to open NCAA Tournament with Minnesota State-Mankato

Natalie Janes and Fort Lewis will make the second NCAA Tournament appearance in program history when the Skyhawks head to Mankato, Minn., for regional play this weekend. FLC’s last appearance came in 2008. Enlarge photo

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo

Natalie Janes and Fort Lewis will make the second NCAA Tournament appearance in program history when the Skyhawks head to Mankato, Minn., for regional play this weekend. FLC’s last appearance came in 2008.

Fort Lewis College’s first NCAA Tournament game in softball since 2008 in just its second appearance all-time on the national stage will feature a contrast in styles.

The Skyhawks, 30-24 and champions of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Tournament, earned the No. 8 seed in the Central Region and will face the region’s top seed, Minnesota State-Mankato, at 12:30 p.m. (Mountain) Friday in Mankato, Minn.

For senior shortstop Jordan Willis, seeing the name “Fort Lewis” flash across the screen during Monday morning’s selection show was quite the scene, even if the Skyhawks already knew they were in the field.

“Priceless, for sure. It’s an unreal feeling,” Willis said.

In the opener, the Skyhawks’ powerful offense will face off against the stellar pitching of the Mavericks, who were ranked No. 7 in the final coaches’ poll.

Fort Lewis ranks seventh nationally in scoring with 7.29 runs per game and second in home runs per contest at 1.37. Leading the way is RMAC Tournament MVP Chelsea Rodriguez, whose .478 batting average is fifth nationally to go with a discerning batting eye that’s helped her top the nation in on-base percentage at .601.

The Mavericks (47-8), champions of the Northern Sun, boast pitchers Courtney McKelvogue and Kendra Huettl, both of whom have identical 1.32 earned-run averages, and the staff as a whole has an ERA of 1.36, good for sixth in the nation. Mankato plays stellar defense, too, with a .979 fielding percentage that’s fourth nationally.

On the flip side, Mankato scores 5.18 runs per game and augments its offense with 1.69 steals per contest.

The Mavericks likely will face either Kassie Haubert or Alexis Villegas, both of whom have been strong of late and were critical in Fort Lewis’ run to the league tournament title.

Still, Fort Lewis head coach Kira Zeiter said her unit is undaunted despite the opponent and lack of NCAA Tournament experience.

“It’s anyone’s ball game. It’s why you play the game. If we show up and play our game, I’m never worried,” she said.

The other two teams in Mankato’s half of the regional are No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth (37-20) and No. 5 Concordia-St. Paul (30-21), and they’ll meet at 10 a.m. (Mountain) Friday in the opener.

The regional is a double-elimination format, with the deciding game set for Sunday.

No. 2 seed Augustana (S.D.) will host the other half of the regional and will open with No. 7 Colorado Mesa, with No. 3 Winona State (Minn.) meeting No. 6 Colorado Christian in the other opener.

The winner of each regional will meet in the super regionals on May 11-12 with a chance to advance to the finals, held from May 16-19 in Louisville, Ky.

All that’s left to do is play ball.

“It’s a new experience. I don’t know, I’d just take seed out of it ... seeding means nothing. It’s who beats who,” Willis said.

rowens@durangoherald.com