GSW enters PBC softball tourney after best season in NCAA-era

Former Lee County star and GSW junior Hayley Knight leads the Lady Hurricanes with a .359 batting average and has 14 RBI entering today’s PBC tournament opener.

Former Lee County star and GSW junior Hayley Knight leads the Lady Hurricanes with a .359 batting average and has 14 RBI entering today’s PBC tournament opener.

AMERICUS — Georgia Southwestern softball coach Eddie Ward knew his team had the talent to turn around a frustrating season.

It was the Lady Hurricanes’ timing that caught their coach off guard.

After getting swept by Anderson (S.C.) University in late March to wrap up a stretch of 10 losses in 12 games, Ward watched the Lady Hurricanes bounce back with two wins against conference rival USC Aiken, kicking off a streak of nine wins in 11 games to fight back into the Peach Belt Conference playoff race.

Since sweeping USC Aiken on March 22, GSW has an 11-5 record, finished the regular season with an NCAA-era record 29 victories and earned the No. 8 see in today’s PBC Tournament in St. Augustine, Fla.

“I had no idea I was going to witness the turnaround at Aiken,” Ward said. “The girls knew at that point in time that their backs were against the wall. We had let some games slip through our fingers earlier in the year, and they knew they couldn’t afford to lose many more. From that point on, our battle cry was, ‘10 wins will get you in.’ ”

The Lady Hurricanes settled for nine conference wins, but it was enough to put them in a tie for seventh in the PBC standings — their best finish since joining the NCAA in 2007.

GSW (29-25, 9-13) lost a tiebreaker with Francis Marion and dropped to a No. 8 seed, and the Lady Hurricanes will open the tournament at 11 a.m. today against No. 1 seed Armstrong Atlantic State.

The Lady Pirates are ranked second in the nation and have won 13 of 15 games, but Ward thinks his team has one more surprise left.

“How nice would it be for us to go in there at 11 a.m. (today) and beat the top seed,” he said. “It’s not just coach’s rhetoric. I honesty feel like we are capable of going down and upsetting Armstrong.”

It wouldn’t be the first time.

The Lady Hurricanes handed Armstrong one of its four PBC losses on March 14 when Allison Pastor threw a complete-game, five-hitter in a 1-0 GSW victory.

Pastor, a junior from Vero Beach, Fla., emerged as GSW’s ace this season and will take a 13-8 record, a 3.34 ERA and 115 strikeouts into today’s game. And since the tournament format is single elimination, Ward believes he has the pitcher to ride to a title.

“I thought it might take (Pastor) a year to come into her own in the Peach Belt, but it didn’t. She has pitched really well,” he said. “You only have to win three in a row (to win the tournament), and we have already had winning streaks of four and five. Winning is within our reach. It’s not asking us to play over our heads or over achieve.”

The Lady Hurricanes are playing in the tournament for the first time since 2009 when they upset UNC Pembroke in the first round to give GSW its first NCAA-era postseason victory in any sport.

Lee County grad Hayley Knight is leading GSW at the plate, hitting .359 with 14 RBI, while Jordan Miller leads the team with eight homers and 37 RBI, and Janna Anderson and Avery Purser each have 32 RBI. Mason Moreland has also been key offensively with a .320 batting average and a team-high 31 stolen bases.

GSW is entering the tournament on a two-game winning streak after sweeping Albany State last week, and Armstrong won four in a row to end the regular season.

“If we go there and play solid defensive ball and play like we have been playing, we cane make a run and win the whole thing,” Ward said.