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By William Qualkinbush

The upper crust of softball is among the toughest to break into in college sports.

Consider this: There have been 39 national champions crowned since the first NCAA Tournament back in 1982. Only 13 schools have won one. More than half of the titles (21) have been won by UCLA and Arizona. Just four teams east of the Mississippi River have ever won a championship.

Programs have strived for decades to break into that upper echelon. They have scratched and clawed just to get their names inserted into the national conversation, only to be boxed out by a hierarchy that has been historically based out west and has proven unforgiving to most challengers.

Bottom line: It’s hard to be nationally relevant in softball on a consistent basis, which makes Clemson’s Sunday accomplishment even more spectacular.

The Tigers, with merely 133 games under their belts, will host an NCAA Softball Regional at McWhorter Stadium this weekend. The selection of Clemson has the 10th overall seed in the field is a testament to the efforts of John RIttman and his staff, as well as a group of players who largely took a leap of faith that the vision of Clemson orange and regalia flying high among the traditional powers in the sport would be realized before they graduated.

Two years in, and already a major boxed checked for the up-and-coming Tigers. Last season, despite winning the ACC regular season title and making it to the conference title game, Clemson was forced to travel to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to take on one of the national powers Rittman would like his program to emulate.

While fans cried foul, that trip was important for the two-seed in its first-ever NCAA Tourney, as Rittman said on multiple occasions that being able to experience a big-time atmosphere was important for his young team. It gave them a picture to hang on the proverbial wall, something to aspire to in the coming seasons.

The biggest difference between last year’s Tigers and this year’s version? Schedule strength. The main reason Clemson didn’t host last year was a lack of tests against quality competition. Rittman set up a tougher schedule than his team realized, but Covid disrupted that plan and the ACC schedule also made the Tigers an unlucky squad when it came down to it.

Lesson learned. After facing the nation’s 92nd-ranked schedule in 2021, the Tigers’ strength of schedule was ranked 4th in 2022. That led to an RPI bump up from 20 to 8 in the final rankings. Clemson played 29 of its 54 games against NCAA Tournament participants. The Tigers faced six of the other 15 host teams, three of which came from the ACC after a historic season for the league in which 25 percent of host sites belong to either Clemson or its conference peers.

This team is a little bit different from last season’s crew. The offense lacks a statistical standout, but it is much more balanced than the 2021 version. No Tiger had more home runs than Alia Logoleo’s 14, but there are four players in double digits in that category. Seven players have hit .275 or better, led by Mackenzie Clark’s .327 clip.

Valerie Cagle has not quite matched her monster freshman campaign (which would have been virtually impossible to do), but she still earned a first-team All-ACC nod for her efforts in the circle (166 strikeouts in 146.2 innings) and at the plate (.304, 12 HR, 40 RBI). Clark also made the league’s second team, while Logoleo and lefty pitcher Millie Thompson were third-team selections.

Last season, it was Cagle or bust for this team in the circle, with the rest of the options to pitch needing more seasoning. It was evident in the Bama regional that, although the Tide featured star pitcher Montana Fouts, there were backup options that weren’t far behind. Clemson made it a point of emphasis to develop a staff, and it definitely has.

Now, Cagle has significant help from Thompson, whose unique personality shines both in the dugout–you’ll find her wearing either a captain’s hat or a Viking helmet most of the time–and in the circle, where her high-energy style mixes well with a pitch-to-contact approach. Neither Cagle nor Thompson lead the team in ERA, however. That honor goes to Regan Spencer, a righty who usually throws out of the bullpen and leads the ACC with a 1.07 ERA.

In two seasons, Clemson has left no doubt what kind of program it is. It has played for two ACC titles. It has made two NCAA Tournaments. Now, as it continues to climb the ladder and emerge ever closer to the softball elite class, it will host an NCAA Regional for the first time.

This weekend represents an opportunity to showcase McWhorter Stadium and a home crowd that is quickly becoming respected for its tenacity around the nation, but it will be far from a coronation. The Tigers will open at noon against UNC Wilmington, which is making its first-ever tourney appearance. The 2:30 pm contest will feature a 39-win team in Auburn and a red-hot Louisiana team that just won the Sun Belt and has some impressive data points on its resume.

The time for playing will come. Today is a day for celebrating.

Clemson is a top 16 program in the country with just two full seasons under its belt. Many of its best players are freshmen and sophomores.

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