The Big South Championship has arrived in Farmville.
Beginning Wednesday, May 10, Longwood softball will play host to a milestone event, as the Big South Conference brings its postseason softball tournament to Lancer Field for the first time. The winner of the four-day gauntlet will be crowned Big South Champion and earn the conference’s bid to the NCAA Regional, a familiar honor for a Lancer program that has quickly emerged as the dynasty of the Big South.
It’s only fitting that Longwood’s most successful athletics program gets the honor of hosting the campus’ first Big South Championship in any sport, a well-earned reward for a group that has put Longwood on the map by advancing to three NCAA Regionals in the past four years. Under 20th-year head coach Kathy Riley, Longwood has won three of the past four Big South titles, compiled a Big South-best 85-31 (.733) conference record and become the university’s first team of the Division I era to advance to the NCAA postseason, doing so in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
We’re really looking forward to the community getting out and supporting us and having a great crowd.Kathy Riley, Longwood softball head coach
This year, led by the dominant pitching duo of two-time Big South Pitcher of the Year Elizabeth McCarthy and 2016 Big South Tournament MVP Sydney Gay, the No. 3 seed Lancers (24-26, 13-8 Big South) are in pursuit of their third straight Big South Championship, which would put them on equal footing with only three other Big South schools that have achieved a three-peat in the 31-year history of Big South softball.
The right to bring the Big South Championship to Farmville is deserved for the Lancers, who have owned the tournament since joining the conference. The Lancers boast a 16-4 record in their first four trips to the Big South postseason, making an immediate statement to the league by winning their first tournament in 2013 and then repeating for back-to-back crowns in 2015 and 2016.
Now for the first time, Longwood’s well-established hometown fanbase will witness their team’s championship pursuit firsthand on their home field, beginning with the Lancers’ first-round matchup against No. 6 seed Radford this Wednesday, May 10 at 2:30 p.m.
For Riley, a 20-year Farmville native, having home-field advantage is beneficial, but bringing the tournament to town is about much more than that.
“I’m always excited when we have events here in Farmville,” said Riley, a two-time Big South Coach of the Year who took over the program in 1997. “We just had the Heart of Virginia Festival on High Street, and the vice presidential debate in October. It just adds energy and brings us together.
“We have two great colleges here in town, so it’s really nice when we have an opportunity to spread the word about all the good things we do through athletics. We’re really looking forward to the community getting out and supporting us and having a great crowd.”
Farmville has been abuzz about the Big South Championship since the conference announced Longwood as the host site on October 13, just nine days after the university took to the international stage by playing host to the 2016 Vice Presidential Debate. Since the announcement, local business owners have added Longwood softball posters to their storefronts, restaurants included Big South Softball Championship coasters with their place settings, and ground decals featuring several members team popped up all over town.
“Oh man, it’s really exciting to see everything around Farmville,” said McCarthy, who has sparked Longwood’s late-season surge to a second-place Big South finish by going 5-1 with a 2.01 ERA over her past eight outings. “I’ve seen our ground decals all over town. We went and hunted for everybody’s. If we found one, we put it in our group chat so everybody knew we found them. Then there’s all the videos, the banners everywhere, the posters in restaurants and posts all over social media.”
Lancer Field, home of Longwood softball, got its own upgrades as well, sporting new Longwood-branded padding courtesy of a generous contribution from local business owner Gene Watson and his wife, a Longwood graduate, Patsy. In addition to the Longwood softball marks, the wall received the official Big South Championship banners Monday, signaling that tournament week has arrived.
“It means a lot,” said freshman Kasey Carr, a 41-game starter who has spent time at shortstop and first base this season. “It goes to show the softball team has a big impact on the community. Our new padding at the field, the posters, all the signs around town, I think that brings a lot more focus to the softball tournament. I think it will really benefit the community as well, bringing a lot of people to Farmville.”
The Big South’s six participating teams arrived in Farmville Tuesday, with their respective fanbases not far behind. The six-team format is new this year, awarding first-round byes to the tournament’s No. 1 seed Liberty and No. 2 seed Campbell, which tied Longwood with a 13-8 conference record and earned the higher seed via head-to-head tiebreaker. The double-elimination rules remain, meaning a team keeps playing until they suffer two losses.
Longwood had mastered the previous eight-team format, outlasting the rest of the field in three of their first four trips to the Big South Championship. Along with an undefeated run through the 2015 tournament, Longwood suffered a loss in both the 2013 and 2016 tournaments but bounced back to win both times.
But after winning those tournaments on the road at Winthrop (2013), Campbell (2015) and Winthrop again (2016), the Lancers’ championship bid this year will come on a home field where they are 12-6 this season, including 8-1 against Big South foes.
“This really came at the right time for us to host the Big South Conference Tournament,” Riley said. “If you look at our home record this year, it’s been pretty good. I couldn’t be happier that we’re playing right here.”
Neither could Farmville.