The challenges facing the No. 3 Mississippi Gulf Coast in this weekend's MACJC Tournament are formidable.
The Lady Bulldogs (43-3) will try to repeat as state champions in a field containing three other teams in the top 10 of the NJCAA Division II Softball Rankings. They open play Friday in Ellisville against No. 7 Itawamba (39-8) in the double-elimination tournament.
"You've got No. 3, 5, 7 and 10 in the same tournament. I doubt that's ever been done before," Gulf Coast coach Kenneth Long said. "It's going to be really, really tough, but I like our demeanor, I like our team and I think we've got a great shot at doing well in this tournament."
No. 5 Jones (39-6) plays No. 10 East Central (42-7) in the other game Friday. The top three teams advance to the Region 23 Tournament, which will include an even higher ranked opponent. It will be hosted by No. 1 LSU-Eunice on May 5-7.
Gulf Coast went 3-1 against the other two teams in the tournament, including a split at Jones and a sweep at East Central.
The Lady Bulldogs suffered one of their few losses of the season to Itawamba, splitting a pair of 1-0 games in Perkinston early in the MACJC schedule. Kaitlin Lee (21-1) took her only loss of the year despite tossing a three-hitter.
Pitching is Gulf Coast's strong suit, with the staff sporting the nation's only sub-1.00 ERA. Lee leads NJCAA Division with a 0.51 ERA, and Nora Keehn has a 0.98 mark.
Lee is part of a seasoned sophomore class that also won the Region 23 crown last year. They'll be accustomed to the atmosphere at Jones County.
"It helps in some ways because you're playing in front of much bigger crowds," Long said. "In that regard, it helps. Last year, our freshmen were hungry and they were just relentless. They wanted that championship, and I think that makes a difference, too."
The freshman class includes Keehn and shortstop Lexie Mathis, who leads Gulf Coast with a .458 batting average, 15 home runs and 58 RBI.
"I think this year's freshman group blended in with this group of sophomores," Long said. "I've had people tell me that our team is really mature and handles things well. I think this freshmen group will help push us in that direction and give us some stability."