JR Bundy also contributed to this story.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try again.
The Penguins thought they were a shoo-in to nab a seed in this year’s postseason, but a nine-year playoff drought will likely continue for Clark’s softball team after NWAC restructured its playoff qualifications last summer.
Prior to this season, like most NWAC team sports, playoff seeds were given to the top four highest-ranked teams in the four regions. This year, the top two of each region and the next eight best-ranked on the NWAC Rating Percentage Index will qualify for playoff positions.
The RPI, also used by the NCAA, ranks teams based on their records, strength of schedule and location of games. Under this system every game counts, including preseason.
Last year, Clark fell short of the playoffs despite having a 14-26 record, compared to Grays Harbor College at 6-24. Grays Harbor made the playoffs because their six in-conference wins topped Clark’s four, despite winning eight fewer games overall.
NWAC adjusted the postseason format to equalize playoff matchups and prevent weak teams from qualifying based solely on conference records, according to NWAC Sports Information Assistant Spencer Roland.
The new format brought hope to Clark, according to third-year head coach Mandy Hill.
“We have a team that’s totally capable of making the playoffs this year,” Hill said in the beginning of the season. The softball team has measurably improved since finishing 7-28 and 14-26 in their last two seasons, but the team finished the regular season below .500.
Clark is in the NWAC southern region, described by Roland as “one of [the toughest], if not the toughest, region in the conference.”
Clark was 3-13 in their region and ranked No. 18 as of May 12, while four teams from the south were ranked in the top seven based on RPI.
Postseason tensions mounted as the team headed into the back–half of the season. Clark attempted to keep cool going into the last few games of their season.
“They don’t really look at it as pressure,” Hill said. “They’re just taking it game-by-game.”
The Penguins felt optimistic about the upcoming games following a 5-0 shutout that included a grand slam by sophomore catcher Sarah Hoechlin, one of two wins against Chemeketa Community College on May 4.
“I just got to keep chippin’ away,” Hoechlin said. “Everybody’s got to to keep chippin’ away. We are all just fighting to get runs in.”
In the next double header, the Penguins had little room for error.
“Two losses are never good,” Hill said. “We just have to get out there and keep playing like we practice.”
But the Penguins lost back-to-back games at home against No. 6 Lower Columbia on May 7, and two more at No. 12 Clackamas Community College on May 10, losing any hope of making the playoffs.
At the time of writing, the Penguins stood a chance of clinching a playoff berth, but the team needed a sweep of four remaining regular season games and losses by the three teams ranked ahead of them to qualify.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but stranger things have happened,” Roland said.
The future could be bright for Clark, as the team will retain 13 freshmen, and has letters of intent from three national prospects.