VIDEO: Michael Graves Interview
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (29-19) gets South Atlantic Conference Tournament play rolling with a tall task. The eighth-seeded Eagles take on top-seeded and ninth-ranked Lenoir-Rhyne (42-7) Friday at 12:30 in Anderson, S.C.
The matchup features the two teams with the most SAC titles. The Eagles and Bears have combined to win 27 of the SAC's 28 regular season crowns (some have been shared) and 18 of the league's 26 tournament titles.
"I would say neither team wanted to play each other in the first round of a loser goes home conference tournament," interim head softball coach Michael Graves said. "It's a rivalry game. These are two really good teams and we've played each other really tight for the past several years and meetings."
Lenoir-Rhyne swept Carson-Newman to spoil the Eagles' senior day on April 14 in a pair of objectively good classics.
The Bears scored three unearned runs in the opener to pick up a 3-1 win before rallying with six unanswered to take a 7-5 decision in eight innings in the nightcap.
Pitcher Lacie Rinus (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) carried the Eagles both in the circle and at the plate. She surrendered 10 runs on the day, however, only three of the runs she allowed were earned. She struck out 10 through the doubleheader, six in game one and four in the nightcap.
Rinus homered in game two and went 5-for-7 at the plate with three RBI. She also homered in game one, but a two-run blast was wiped off the board after a protest sent the game back four batters.
The tournament brings change in 2018. In years past, the affair has been a double-elimination tournament. This year, the league has moved to a single elimination format that is win or go home.
"We've been pretty good in the first game all year," Graves said. "We kind of like how the single elimination sets up for us because it could potentially let us ride Lacie's arm."
The matchup features the SAC's four top individual award winners. The Eagles boast player of the year Lacie Rinus. Lenoir-Rhyne has the pitcher of the year in Emily Kenley, the freshman of the year in Kylee Leonhardt and the coach of the year in Shena Hollar.
Kenley, a junior left-handed pitcher from Charlotte, N.C., led the SAC in both wins and ERA, posting a record of 21-3 in the circle with a 1.45 ERA. She threw 19 complete games with five shutouts and had 106 strikeouts. Kenley was named SAC AstroTurf Pitcher of the Year three times this season and is one of 25 finalists for the Schutt/NFCA Division II National Player of the Year.
"She's very good, and obviously you have to be to win pitcher of the year," Graves said. "She keeps you off balance. She hits her spots and doesn't make many mistakes. We'll have to be on point for when she does make a mistake."
Kenley is one of two lefty starters that the Eagles have faced this season.
Leonhardt, a first baseman from Lincolnton, N.C., played in 43 games this season, batting .376 with 14 doubles, eight home runs and 41 RBI. She ranks fifth in the conference in doubles and sixth in runs batted in. She had 16 multi-hit games and she drove in at least one run in 21 games this season.
Hollar earns her seventh South Atlantic Conference Coach of the Year honor after guiding her Bears to their sixth SAC regular season championship in the last eight years. The No. 7 Bears finished the 2018 season with an overall record of 42-7, including a SAC record of 19-1. Hollar's squad led the SAC in batting average (.328) and ERA (1.66). She also had five SAC AstroTurf Player/Pitchers of the Week.
This is Carson-Newman's first ever SAC tournament as an eight seed and its third overall tournament when seeded sixth or lower. Carson-Newman won the 2009 tournament as a six seed. The Eagles were two and done in 2014 as a seven seed.
Carson-Newman won last year's SAC tournament matchup with the Bears 1-0 to make the title game on a walk-off Kristen Toppel (Roanoke, Va.) single back up the middle.
Follow @cnathletics on Twitter for live updates of the game Friday.