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Viking softball team takes youthful exuberance to Seattle NCAA regional

by: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY PSU's Carly McEachran, a sophomore from Mill Creek, Wash., has been named co-MVP of the Pacific Coast Softball Conference Mountain Division. She hit a team-high .475 in league play, with team bests of four home runs, 19 RBIs and 20 runs in 20 games.

Consistency couldn't have come at a better time for a young and hungry Portland State softball team.

The Vikings have been on a tear for the past month. Last week, they swept a best-of-three title series with Loyola Marymount to earn the Pacific Coast Softball Conference championship.

The victory gave the Viks (34-16 overall, 16-4 PCSC) their second NCAA tournament berth in three years.

They will square off with No. 14 Washington (34-14) Thursday in a four-team regional at Seattle that includes Brigham Young (38-16) and No. 24 Auburn (39-17). The Portland State-UW game is scheduled for 6 p.m. In the opening game, Auburn will face BYU at 3:30 p.m. The double-elimination regional runs through Saturday at Husky Softball Stadium.

After a midseason meltdown (March 12 to April 10), in which the Viks lost eight of 10 games, PSU has won 21 of 22. The Vikings head to the regional on an 11-game win streak that is the school record as a Division I program.

'Everybody counted us out. Everybody but us,' third-year PSU coach Tobin Echo-Hawk says.

Washington owns a 37-1 record over the Vikings, who beat UW 4-2 in eight innings at Seattle on March 2, 2008.

Still, Echo-Hawk says, 'We like this match up. It goes back to confidence.'

The coach says she isn't worried about the history.

'Obviously, I know how successful they've been against us,' she says. 'That's great and all. Records don't mean anything at this point. Anything can happen. You never know what the results are going to be. Look at Virginia Commonwealth (in the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament).'

Washington won the NCAA title in 2009. The Huskies also reached the Women's College World Series last year. This year, they tied for sixth out of eight teams in the Pac-10, going 9-12 in league. This is their 18th consecutive postseason appearance.

'The best thing we can do is focus on ourselves,' Echo-Hawk says.

Pitching isn't an issue with the Vikings, one of 64 teams in the NCAA field. The team has two aces in senior Nichole Latham (16-8, 1.71 ERA) and sophomore Anna Bertrand (16-8, 2.60 ERA). Latham is a spot pitcher who puts a lot of spin her pitches, while Bertrand depends on strikeouts with a lethal changeup and strong fastball.

Echo-Hawk won't say which pitcher will start against the Huskies.

'We have two great people to choose from,' she says. 'I have complete faith in either of them. Both do a great job working the count. In some ways, they're very similar and in other ways they are extremely different. They don't show a lot of emotion on the field.'

The PSU defense has committed 52 errors in 327 1/3 innings, a .963 fielding percentage.

'We spend a lot of time on defense,' Echo-Hawk says. 'We focus on the little things. Even in practice, we work on diving for balls. Then in games it becomes second nature. It's really exciting to see the players buy into this.'

The Vikings hit .311 in the regular season, with five players at .333 or better. Junior outfielder Jenna Krogh led the way at .405.

'We have so many people who can hit the ball,' Echo-Hawk says. 'I was thinking about that today in practice. A bunch of players have contributed.'

Of 19 players, only four are seniors: Latham, infielder Arielle Wiser, outfielder Brandi Campos and catcher Susan Winningham. The team has more underclassmen (11) than upperclassmen (8).

'We have a good mix of experience and youth,' Echo-Hawk says. 'It's great - that youthful feeling, so excited and pumped. It's nice to have fresh eyes. They're not afraid of anything. We have a lot to prove.'

Eight Vikings were named Tuesday to the PCSC Mountain Division all-star team. Carly McEachran, a sophomore second baseman, was voted co-MVP of the division, with Latham earning the pitcher of the year honor. Also on the first team: Bertrand, Krogh, Wiser, utility player Sadie Lopez, first baseman Karmen Holladay and third baseman Crysta Conn.

Catcher Lacey Holm and outfielder Becca Bliss made second team all-division.

Washington's pitcher is Portlander Kaitlin Inglesby, a freshman from Central Catholic High. The 6-1 Inglesby is 22-8 on the mound and has hit 11 home runs and driven in 33 runs. The Vikings know they have their work cut out for them.

'She's their go-to (player), both offensively and defensively,' Echo-Hawk says.

Viking sophomore Megan Wallo, a backup outfielder, was a teammate of Inglesby at Central Catholic, and other PSU players have known or played with Inglesby over the years. Echo-Hawk says she feels that will work to the Vikings' advantage.

'To them, she's just a kid that they've played with,' Echo-Hawk says. 'That adds a little more confidence. We can't put her up on a pedestal.'

The Viks went 1-5 against ranked teams. On Feb. 11, the second day of the season, they picked up a 4-3 victory in eight innings over BYU, which was ranked No. 16 at the time. The Vikings are 2-3 all-time versus BYU and 0-2 against Auburn.

Washington's lineup includes infielder Jenn Salling, who starred for Oregon as a freshman and played for Canada's 2008 Olympic team.

Echo-Hawk's biggest message to skeptics: Don't count out Portland State.

'Every day is a different day,' she says. 'Go out and have fun and the game will come to you - we've bought into that all year. Hopefully that continues.'