‘You have to light that fire to survive’ — BYU softball fighting for a 17th consecutive NCAA tournament berth

BYU softball is on a nine-game winning streak, but don’t tell that to anyone on the team. Some players don’t realize it, and the ones who do aren’t willing to let a recent surge distract from the big picture.

“It doesn’t really matter,” third basemen Martha Epenesa said. “It’s exciting to have a streak, but it keeps you thinking about the games you’ve already played … we need to stay in the present and focus on the next game.”

While nine straight wins is plenty laudable, BYU has two more important streaks to worry about: The Cougars have won 12 consecutive conference titles while earning 16 straight NCAA tournament berths.

“We take it one pitch at a time, one inning at a time and one game at a time,” head coach Gordon Eakin said. “While it’s nice to win nine in a row, that’s certainly never our focus.”

The focus has never been about how many wins Eakin’s squad can compile. It’s really about ensuring that the winning lasts as long as necessary to prevent an early April setback from spoiling the entire season.

BYU — a convincing 34-10 on the year thus far and 7-2 within conference play — began its current unbeaten stretch following a pair of losses to LMU on April 8-9, the lone WCC blemishes on BYU’s resume which dropped the Cougars into the unfamiliar territory of second place.

“Falling to LMU and losing the series put us back a bit,” center fielder Violet Zavodnik said. “Our mindset has changed as a team, so we attack every day differently now.”

With just 15 WCC games on the schedule each season, the Cougars couldn’t afford to lose twice to the same team — let alone the conference’s first place squad.

“We’ve never been in a situation where we’re second in the conference, but it lights a fire under us to stay on top of our game,” Epenesa said. “We can’t let a game get by us.. we need to bring our A-game from the moment we get off the bus.”

“It put our backs against the wall,” Eakin added. “All we can do is worry about ourselves, control what we can control and try not to lose again within the WCC.”

The Cougars have swung a hot bat throughout the season, leading the conference in nearly every major statistical category. They’ve scored more runs, knocked more extra base hits and hit for a higher average than anyone in the WCC. They strike out the least, draw the most walks and have slugged 48 home runs — 16 more than second-place LMU.

(Graphic created by Jackson Payne with photos from BYU photo)

On the mound, BYU has been just as dominant, surrendering the fewest hits, runs and walks in the league while piling up the most strikeouts. Recent transfer addition Chloe Temples and 2021 WCC Pitcher of the Year Autumn Moffat-Korth have formed a most formidable pitching tandem, both placing in the top five for wins, earned run average (ERA) and strikeouts within the conference.

(Graphic created by Jackson Payne with photos from BYU photo)

Zavodnik is making a strong case to repeat as WCC Player of the Year, having nearly matched her 2021 numbers already by hitting .372 with a league-leading 13 home runs and 44 runs batted in (RBI) for her sophomore campaign. In addition to Zavodnik, Macey Simmons, Huntyr Ava and Epenesa all crowd the home run and RBI leaderboards while Taylei Williams is firmly in the race for BYU’s batting average and stolen base titles.

However, the stats and accolades mean nothing if the LMU losses — one where Temples struggled and another where BYU’s conference-best offense managed just a single base hit — keep the Cougars out of the postseason.

“We know we have to keep winning in order to get to (the tournament), so we’re pushing each other to be better each game because there’s something on the line,” said shortstop Marissa Chavez, who was named WCC Player of the Week on Monday. “After those losses to LMU, it’s been really important for us to stay together. We’ve all taken upon our roles and flourished.”

Sixty-four teams are selected for the NCAA softball tournament each season, with 32 conference champions automatically qualifying and the remaining schools receiving at-large bids. BYU currently ranks as No. 49 nationally in the NCAA rating power index (RPI), giving the Cougars a fair shot at an at-large selection as a top-50 program even if LMU was to hold on and clinch the WCC title.

However, the only way to find out for sure is simple: Keep winning.

“You have to change your perspective in the game, knowing that if you lose it can cost your whole season,” Ava said. “Once you know your back is against the wall, you have to light that fire to survive.”

Even with their “backs against the wall,” the Cougars see the pressure as a positive to motivate them even further despite the challenges ahead.

“It’s a good pressure,” Moffat-Korth said. “We’re not in the (conference) lead right now, so the focus is to win every game to prove to ourselves that we can and that we should be there.”

In addition, the veteran squad knows that a little extra drama could become an advantage in the batter’s box. “Our bats help us stay alive, and a sense of urgency can help us at the plate,” Ava said.

In order to win the conference and earn the coveted automatic tournament bid, BYU will need LMU to lose two of its final three WCC contests to Santa Clara. In addition, the Cougars would need to sweep their final six conference matchups.

Of course, the Cougars aren’t thinking that far ahead. They’re taking it “one pitch at a time, one inning at a time and one game at a time.”

“Every game we just attack, we try to forget our mistakes and just blow past because we want to take everything pitch by pitch,” Zavodnik said. “Our team is a puzzle, and there are no missing pieces.”

BYU will face off against Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday before heading to Orem Wednesday for a matchup with UVU. The Cougars will return home to Provo to face Utah State on May 10.

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