By Turner Walston
It was a quiet night on Franklin Street. Some 12 hours after Sunday morning's commencement ceremonies, with Mother's Day brunches and lunches long over, there was plenty of seating at R and R Grill.
Except for one corner. That's where the Carolina Softball team gathered to learn their postseason fate. Coming off a weekend in which they hosted the ACC Tournament and fell by a single run in the title game to Florida State, the Tar Heels felt good about their chances of an NCAA Tournament bid.
Requests of "Can you turn it up?" echoed around the room when the clock struck 10 p.m. and the NCAA Softball Tournament Selection Show began on ESPN.
A year ago, Carolina was one of the last teams announced. This time, they waited just ten minutes to find out they'd be traveling to Oxford, Mississippi to take on Arizona State in the first round on Friday. And so while last year there was a cry of jubilation, this time was a little more subdued. "Oh! Ole Miss!" one Tar Heel said when the team's name appeared on screen. There were nods of recognition and smiles.
"You guys, this is the first time we've been announced this early!" Tar Heel head coach Donna J. Papa said. "Are you excited?" Then the whoops and cheers came. Carolina softball's 2017 season would continue.
"I think last year we were definitely a little bit more on the bubble," senior Kendra Lynch said of the difference in reaction. "We were very confident, especially making the run in the tournament that we did, that our name was going to get called. Having it get called this early was nice, not having to wait. This is exciting."
Though they didn't hoist the ACC Tournament trophy on Saturday, the Tar Heels took a lot of confidence from their battle with the Seminoles. "We just played the number two or three team in the nation, and we played them tough," Papa said. "I think that experience is going to help us a lot, and how we played this weekend will give us momentum going into the postseason. I think the momentum is with us. We definitely learned some things from that game, but I think whenever you go into postseason, everybody's record is 0-0. It doesn't matter that you have a certain name across your chest. You have to go out and play the game."
The emergence of freshman pitcher Brittany Pickett –the ACC's Freshman of the Year– has allowed senior Kendra Lynch, who tossed the lion's share of the Tar Heel innings a year ago, to concentrate on her hitting. That has resulted in a second-team All-ACC selection for Lynch and the best hitting year of her career. And she has been able to mentor Pickett.
"I talk with Brittany a lot, trying to help her grasp what she's doing this year," Lynch said. "I think her taking the load, it's a lot easier on me and allowing me to focus on hitting, which is why it's no surprise that this is my best hitting year, because I don't have to do both. Having Brittany take that role has been huge in our success. She's a key part of why we've had the season we've had."
"My first year, I didn't really know how things were going to go, but I just kept working and progressively I got better from the beginning of the year 'til now," Pickett said.
"We need Kendra's bat, and we need Brittany's arm on the mound," Papa said. "We know we can bring Kendra in for a couple of innings, and she's been there. I think it's great. We have kind of the best of both, in a lot of ways."
Carolina will certainly rely on that duo this weekend, along with All-ACC performers Leah Murray and Taylor Wike and .301 hitting catcher Katie Bailiff. After a good showing in the ACC Tournament and a continued emergence into the national picture –the Tar Heels were one of just three ACC teams selected– the Tar Heels will look to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think we played really good teams this year and even though the outcome may not have been what we expect or what we want, we'll take that energy into the postseason," Pickett said.
And despite a somewhat anticlimactic announcement, the Tar Heels are looking forward to playing more meaningful softball. "It's awesome," Lynch said. "I'm not ready to be done yet, so we're excited to head to Oxford and play Arizona State and hopefully get the job done there."