North Carolina softball qualifies for NCAA Tournament for third consecutive year

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North Carolina designated player Kendra Lynch (15) jogs toward her teammates after hitting a home run against UNC-Charlotte on March 7.

North Carolina softball head coach, Donna Papa, had a gut feeling that her team’s season would continue.

The Tar Heels had an RPI ranking in the mid-30s, reached the ACC Tournament Championship and finished third in the conference during the regular season with 14 wins — all of which gave UNC a strong résumé for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

But there’s nothing like hearing your name called and seeing it show up on the bracket. It removes all doubt. This year, Papa and her players didn’t have to wait long.

Fresh off their run to the ACC title game, the Tar Heels are officially in the NCAA Softball Championship for a third straight year and the 14th time in program history.

“It came up fast, which is what I like the best,” Papa said. “In the past few years, it’s been like one of the last few regions to be announced.”

UNC is headed to the Oxford, Mississippi regional — hosted by No. 12 overall seed Ole Miss — where it’ll open up the tournament against Arizona State on Friday night.

The regional round has a double-elimination format, so the Tar Heels will play either Ole Miss or Southern Illinois on Saturday regardless of what happens against the Sun Devils.

As of now, all of the focus is on Arizona State. Papa knows how good of a position her team could be in if they manage to start the weekend off with a win.

“The biggest thing is winning game one,” she said. “Winning game one puts you in a different position.”

Losers of seven of their final eight regular-season games, the Tar Heels benefited from an 11-day stretch without a contest before regaining their form in the ACC Tournament, which was played at Anderson Stadium.

UNC saw its bats come alive in wins against Syracuse and N.C. State, while pitcher Brittany Pickett, the ACC Freshman of the Year, impressed against Florida State, one of the top teams in the nation.

Shortstop Taylor Wike, who had two hits and scored a run against the Seminoles, thinks the Tar Heels can carry the confidence they gained from last week with them into Oxford.

“It was huge to make that run in the ACC Tournament,” she said. “Even though we ended up losing the championship game, to play the No. 4 team in the country to a 4-3 game gives us confidence to go against the No. 12 team in the country.”

Unlike past years, UNC hasn’t played any of the other three teams in its regional, which is a bit unusual, Papa said.

She said on Monday that she knew little about the Sun Devils, but that would change soon. When asked whether if she would rather play teams she had seen before, Papa didn’t have a concrete answer and said ultimately, it may not matter.

“I think so much of it is about how you prepare yourself, what confidence you have in you and if you’re going to execute or not,” she said.

Certainly, UNC will need its best players to play up to their potential. For Pickett, that means showcasing the same type of durability she did during the ACC Tournament and for Kendra Lynch, UNC’s senior leader and best hitter, that means doing more of the same.

This season, Lynch leads the Tar Heels in most batting categories — most notably in home runs (21) — and pitched when called upon in addition to serving as a guide on the UNC squad with 16 first-years and sophomores.

Now, she’s just hoping to keep her college career alive.

“I’m really excited to go out there and play in the regional with this team," Lynch said. "Obviously I hope that we can continue to extend the season after. But it’s going to be bittersweet."

"I don’t want it to end.”

@brennan_doherty

sports@dailytarheel.com

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