AC Athletics/Gary Stallard
LUFKIN, TX (Press Release)- Having already established a new program record for wins in a season with 43, the Angelina College Lady Roadrunners would love to add at least three more to the totals.
Four would be even sweeter.
Three wins in the upcoming tournament would guarantee at least a runners-up finish, while four would claim a conference tournament championship. Either one of those scenarios would be enough to book the team a trip to the NJCAA World Series in Utah, where an AC team won a national title in 2014.
To get to Utah, the Lady 'Runners have to get out of Lufkin first. The conference tournament opens on Saturday at Roadrunner Complex on the AC campus, and the Lady Roadrunners drew a tough card in the opening round. AC will face San Jacinto College at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, and the Coyotes will throw one of the nation's best pitchers, sophomore Niki Gonzalez, against one of the nation's best hitting teams.
Head coach Mark Mattson said his Lady Roadrunners are all-too-aware of the challenges awaiting them.
"We're going up against one of the very best pitchers in the country," Mattson said. "She'll certainly give us our share of problems. We'll mentally have to get through strikeouts and groundouts, just outs in general, and make the most out of every chance we get. The one game we faced her, we lost by a single run but finished with seven hits.
"It'll be a challenge, but it should be fun. One of the best junior college pitchers in the country facing one of the most prolific offenses in the country in our first game of the tournament. It'll be tough, but we're excited about it."
AC's pitching staff has endured a different story. Expected to boast two returning starters from 2016, including 23-game winner Taylor Odom, the staff instead has suffered numerous injuries, including a career-ending injury to Odom before the fall practices began. Whitney Howerton opened the year as the staff ace, with transfer Kylie Murdock right alongside her; but both those players suffered injuries still plaguing them heading into this weekend's action.
Still, the team won 43 games, and Mattson credits the other players for stepping into unexpected roles.
"We won 43 games despite losing a veteran pitcher before the season even started," Mattson said. "Our pitching staff has really had to grind out some wins all year long. Some of these girls weren't even coming here to pitch. Jordan Kisselburg and Kaylee Parker didn't transfer here as pitchers. Neither of them had really pitched since high school, but when we needed help, they both said, 'OK, Coach, we'll do it." Jordan went 18-5 with a no-hitter and KK went 5-1. Courtney Stephenson, a freshman, pitched some key innings for us.
"A great work ethic helped us deal with the unexpected, and now we have a great opportunity to do something special in this upcoming tournament."
Howerton ended the regular season with 15 wins, while Murdock went 6-2 with two saves.
San Jac and AC squared off twice in the regular season. With Gonzalez in the circle for the first game, the Coyotes squeezed out a 4-3 win in 11 innings, scoring an unearned run late. In the rematch, the Lady Roadrunners pounded out a 15-4 win against different San Jac pitching.
Saturday's other opening-round games include Kilgore College vs. Blinn College at 10 a.m., Bossier Parish College vs. Lamar State College-Port Arthur at 12:30 p.m. and Tyler College vs. Galveston College at 3 p.m.
Putting together a winning streak at this time of year – and against such a high level of competition – won't be easy, but Mattson and associate head coach Barbi Mattson have been through this before, and with great results.