Texas softball gathers for practice during the second day of the 2017 season at McCombs Field Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. [Stephen Spillman/for STATESMAN]

BEVO BEAT Softball

Diamond Dust: Is Texas in danger of missing the NCAA tournament?

If the season ended today, Texas would get an NCAA bid. But a series loss to Iowa State leaves little margin for error.

Posted April 27th, 2017

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The Texas softball team hit its lowest point of the season on Sunday when Iowa State picked up a 4-2 victory — the Cyclones’ first ever series win over the Longhorns and just the third single-game victory in 52 meetings.

A series loss to Iowa State is the equivalent of losing to Kansas in football.

The Cyclones (18-32, 3-12 Big 12) are the lovable doormat of Big 12 softball. Iowa State has finished dead last each of the past five seasons. The last time the Cyclones didn’t finish in the cellar was in 2011, when they finished one game ahead of last-place Kansas. Since 2011, Iowa State is 15-96 in conference play.

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The series loss put Texas (25-20, 4-8) on the bubble for next month’s NCAA tournament. The Longhorns have not missed the postseason since 2004, the year that Cat Osterman took the season off while winning Olympic gold for Team USA in Athens.

Texas is No. 34 in the Ratings Percentage Index rankings,  which works just like basketball in determining the 64-team NCAA field. Sans winning the conference tournament and earning one of 32 automatic bids, Texas is going to have to get hot, and now. There’s no room for error.

If the season ended today, Texas would likely make the postseason. The Longhorns’ strength of schedule is their saving grace, as it was regarded at the beginning of the season as one of the toughest in the nation.

However, Texas’ 2-11 record against ranked opponents, including an 0-5 mark against top 10 teams, doesn’t look good on its résumé.

The Longhorns still have conference series at Kansas (24-23, 3-9) this weekend and with No. 15 Baylor (26-10, 9-3) next weekend. Assuming the Longhorns don’t go 2-4 in their final six conference games, it will all come down to getting one of the 32 at-large bids.

Winning the series against Baylor, which is No. 9 in the RPI rankings, would all but assure Texas of getting one of those at-large bids, but it will not guarantee the Longhorns extending its postseason streak to 13 years. The primary hurdle is that the Big 12 is not a good softball conference, probably the weakest among Power Five leagues. No. 7 Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State are assured bids, even if neither wins next month’s Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.

The good news for the Longhorns is that the Big 12 has not had fewer than four bids to the NCAA tournament this decade. And six teams have made the tournament with a losing record in conference play.

At-large bids may be hard to come by if some of the non-Power Five conferences have upsets in their league tournaments.

The Pac 12 stands to eat up five or six at-large bids. There are six conference teams —  Arizona (2), Washington (3), UCLA (6), Oregon (7), Utah (15), Arizona State (22) and California (23) — with an RPI ranking of 25 or better.

The SEC also will likely eat up a lot of at-large bids. It has four teams in the top 10 while eight have a 25 or better RPI ranking; Arkansas, Ole Miss, Georgia, Missouri and Mississippi State have higher RPIs than the Longhorns.

Suddenly those 32 at-large bids are now down to 17, at best.

The Big Ten will take multiple at-large bids as will the ACC, Big 12, Conference USA and Sun Belt. The question is, how many?

Should Texas stumble in these final weeks and at the Big 12 tournament, it will need No. 25 Marshall to win Conference USA, No. 19 Louisiana or Texas State to win the Sun Belt, BYU to win the West Coast Conference, and so on and so on.

However, if Kansas wins this weekend’s series with Texas, the Longhorns’ bubble is likely burst, and so is the 12-year postseason streak.

Let’s play in some dirt.

Texas’ Randel Leahy continued her hot streak at the plate last weekend. In her last five games, the junior is batting .600 and has six RBIs, its one positive out of a forgettable weekend at McCombs Field. CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics

THREE UP

  • Randel Leahy still hot at the plate: If there’s one good thing that came out of this weekend, it’s that Leahy continued her tear at the plate. The junior was 3 for 5 with two RBIs and one run scored. In her last five games, she’s 9 for 15 (.600 batting average) with two doubles, one triple and six RBIs. She missed Sunday’s 4-2 loss to Iowa State and Wednesday’s 6-0 win over North Texas due to a family emergency, but she will play this weekend at Kansas.
  • Kristen Clark’s shutout streak continues: The junior relief pitcher made one appearance in Texas’ series with Iowa State. Clark relieved Tiarra Davis in Texas’ only win of the series. She threw one inning and faced four batters, striking out one. She has not allowed a run in her last four appearances, which includes 7 2/3 innings pitched. Clark isn’t an every-day starter, but is an effective relief pitcher. She has a 3.23 ERA, 23 strikeouts in 30.1 innings pitched and has allowed 14 runs in 15 appearances. … By the way, Texas is 11-4 when Clark makes an appearance.
  • Taylor Ellsworth’s phenomenal year: Not too long ago, Ellsworth was attending her senior prom at Georgetown High. It’s one of the only memories, aside from graduating next month with her GHS classmates, that she’ll have of her high school senior year. Texas will remember it as arguably one of the most productive freshman seasons in the program’s history. Ellsworth is the team leader at the plate with a .438 average, which would put her second in the Big 12 if she were eligible; she averages 1.98 at-bats per game, but the Big 12 requires 2.0. She’d also be tied with two other players for the most RBIs, with 21.

THREE DOWN

  • Giving up leads: Texas took a 1-0 lead in the first inning off an RBI single from Celina Felix in Game 1 of the Iowa State series on Friday. The Cyclones tied the game on a sacrifice in the third and then starter Erica Wright (4-5) gave up a home run to Kelsey McFarland in the fourth. The Cyclones got to Wright, who gave up a triple to Kirsten Caudie in the third inning, with six hits and two runs. She struck out only four of the 20 batters she faced.
  • Inconsistency at the plate: Texas was a combined 5-for-25 in Game 1 and 6-for-28 in Game 3 against Iowa State, both losses. However, in Game 2, the Longhorns were 10-for-27, scored seven runs and had two doubles. In Games 1 and 3, UT had a total of one double and three runs scored.
  • Postseason bubble: Who would have thought we’d be here this late in the season? Texas hasn’t missed a postseason since 2004. If Texas loses both of its remaining Big 12 series, the Longhorns’ 12-year postseason streak is possibly coming to an end.
Erica Wright (20) and Texas will look to avoid another letdown this weekend in Lawrence, Kan when the Longhorns take on Kansas in a Big 12 series.  CREDIT: Stephen Spillman / for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

ON DECK: The Longhorns (25-20, 4-8) travel to Lawrence, Kan. for a three-game series. Texas is 31-14 all-time against the Jayhawks (24-23, 3-9) and has not lost in Lawrence since 2008. The Jayhawks took two of three games against Nevada last weekend while Texas … well, we know how that ended.  Here’s the upcoming schedule (all games will air on 105.3):

Friday — at Kansas, 5 p.m.

Saturday — at Kansas, 2

Sunday — at Kansas, noon

Wednesday — Texas A&M-Corpus Christi , 4 p.m., LHN

Texas A&M pitcher Samantha Show leads the fifth-ranked Aggies in nearly every pitching category as A&M is all but assured of a top eight seed, needed to host a regional and super regional in College Station. CREDIT:  Photo courtesy of Texas A&M athletics

AROUND THE HORNS: Here’s a quick look at story lines involving the Big 12, state schools,  the Longhorns and their opponents:

  • No. 5 Texas A&M sweeps No. 22 Georgia: Samantha Show and Lexi Smith tossed their sixth and fourth shutouts, respectively, as the Aggies (40-5, 14-3 SEC) picked up an important conference series win. Show has team-highs of a 1.42 ERA, 16 wins and 12 complete games. She has also fanned 96 batters. The sophomore is also one of A&M’s leaders at the plate with a .320 average. The Aggies, ranked No. 5 in the RPI, are all but assured of one of the top eight national seeds, which would guarantee hosting a regional and super regional in the postseason.
  • Texas State inches closer to the postseason: The Bobcats (34-11, 14-6 Sun Belt) are ranked 29th in the latest RPI, which puts them in good position to earn an at-large bid for the second straight season, should they not win the Sun Belt tournament in three weeks. The Bobcats play their final home series this weekend against Troy and close out the regular season next week at UT-Arlington.
  • Baylor breaks OU’s winning streak: The 13th-ranked Bears (36-10, 9-3 Big 12) didn’t take the series, but avoided a sweep by No. 8 Oklahoma with a 4-3 win Sunday in the first game of a doubleheader in Norman. Baylor’s win snapped the Sooners’ 17-game winning streak and handed Oklahoma its first home loss of the season. There’s no rest for the Bears, who welcome first-place Oklahoma State to Waco this weekend.
  • Big 12 weekly awards: Kansas catcher Harli Ridling took home Big 12 player of the week honors while Oklahoma’s Paige Parker picked up her second straight pitcher of the week nod. Ridling batted .533 this weekend with eight hits, including a double and three home runs to go with eight RBIs. Parker didn’t allow an earned run in 13.1 innings over two starts against Baylor. Parker held the Bears, who hold the conference’s best team batting average (.337), to a .179 average.

BIG 12 POWER POLL: Oklahoma remains atop this week’s power poll, with Bedlam rival Oklahoma State nipping at the Sooners’ heels. The Cowgirls will take on Baylor this weekend, which will either set up next week’s Bedlam series for the regular season conference championship or clinch another title for Oklahoma if the Bears sweep Oklahoma State.

RANKTEAMRECORD (Big 12) LAST WEEKTHIS WEEKNOTE
1 Oklahoma41-8 (11-1)1at Texas Tech (April 28-30)Sooners likely won't break a sweat this weekend as they prepare for the Bedlam Brawl next weekend.
2Oklahoma State32-17 (11-1) 3at Baylor (April 28-30)We will find out if OSU is a contender or pretender this weekend in Waco.
3Baylor36-10 (9-3) 2vs. Oklahoma State (April 28-30)See Oklahoma State note.
4Kansas24-23 (3-9)6vs. Texas (April 28-30)Kansas is a hot-and-cold team this season, but could bust Texas' bubble.
5Iowa State18-32 (3-12)7vs. Western Illinois, DH (April 29) The Cyclones won their first series ever against Texas and may finish out of the cellar for the first time since 2011.
6Texas25-20 (4-8)4at Kansas (April 28-30); vs. Texas A&M-CC (May 3)The Longhorns are officially on the bubble. No room for mistakes in final two weeks.
7Texas Tech17-26 (4-11) 5vs. Oklahoma (April 28-30); at UTSA, DH (May 3) The Red Raiders were a young team and in a rebuilding year. They will be good in years to come.
That’s all the dust for this week. As always, swing for the fences.

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