For the Massachusetts softball team, playing teams at the bottom of the Atlantic 10 standings isn’t as easy as it seems.
Those teams look at the opportunity to knock off the No. 22 team in the country as their biggest game of the season.
But, when the Minutewomen (28-7, 9-0 A-10) face off against some of the top teams in the conference, it’s another story.
For a team like Saint Louis – who UMass plays Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. – it will be a series against an opponent who sees two things: one of its biggest games of the season and an opportunity to shake up the top of the conference standings.
The Billikens (23-19, 9-3 A-10) currently rank fourth in the conference, behind first-place UMass, second-place Charlotte (31-12, 10-2 A-10) and third place Fordham (37-8, 9-2 A-10).
With a half-game separating St. Louis from Fordham, a game separating it from Charlotte and a game and a half separating it from the Minutewomen, a weekend sweep by the Billikens would move them ahead of UMass.
If Charlotte and Fordham were to struggle over the weekend, the Billikens could jump to the top of the standings.
“The thing is, the conference games are hard because it doesn’t matter what anybody’s record is, people know everybody else,” UMass coach Elaine Sortino said after her team downed Quinnipiac.
Sweeping the Minutewomen is no easy task, never mind beating the only undefeated team in A-10 play. They have not been swept in conference play since April 4, 2005 and have only lost two conference games in the past three years.
St. Louis will come at UMass with a balanced team led by its two starting pitchers. Both Hannah Huebbe (12-7, 2.47 earned run average) and Kelcie Matesa (11-10, 2.92 ERA) have split time on the mound and have both held opposing batters to under a .240 batting average.
Offensively, the Billikens are led by Kristin Nicoletti, who leads the team with a .324 batting average. The junior outfielder is the only Billiken to start all 42 games for St. Louis this year, and also leads the team with 27 stolen bases in 32 attempts.
The offense will have to go against Sara Plourde, who is coming off a no-hitter against the Bobcats on Tuesday.
In the 6-0 win over Quinnipiac, UMass’ offense struggled to produce hits but not runs. While being limited to just five hits, the Minutewomen managed to get runners across the plate by stealing eight bases and capitalizing on two errors by Quinnipiac.
“We have to be a better softball team this weekend than we were [against the Bobcats], or it’s going to be a tough trip out there to the Midwest,” Sortino said of what will be needed to beat the Billikens. “[SLU] will give us a great game and [they] will come after us.”
Friday’s contest will be the first A-10 game for UMass since playing Charlotte on April 10.
The two road games will also be the last of the regular season for the Minutewomen, as they embark on a 10-game home stand to end the season before hosting the A-10 championships.
Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at email@example.com.