PROVO — Start out with an accomplished program that has been building a winning tradition for a decade. Add in a few experienced players with fabulous numbers both in the field and at the plate. Then throw a freshman shortstop from Hollister, Calif., in the pot to top it off, and you have a trip to the NCAA Softball Super Regionals for the first time ever.
Yes, J.C. Clayton jumped at the chance to come to BYU, and the Cougars were thrilled to get her, even before she won Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year honors and went 8-for-10 at the plate against some tough pitching in their regionals competition in Texas. Her performance helped push the Cougars beyond that threshold that's held them back several times during the past several years.
"She's just hard-nosed. Pressure doesn't get to her. She's one of the coolest players I've ever been around," noted BYU coach Gordon Eakin of the freshman that's been making so much noise for the Cougars this season.
"You don't even know she's a freshman. She's just money," he added about the player, whose sacrifice fly at the end of the game against No. 7 Texas propelled BYU to a 9-8 victory and into the regional championship game against Conference USA champion East Carolina.
And Clayton really does seem to ooze confidence both out on the field and when talking about the game. Some awfully tough pitching down in Austin, Texas, didn't seem to phase her, and even her superb .800 batting average in the tournament wasn't high in her mind.
"I felt comfortable, really confident. I liked the pitching," she noted of the tough freshman pitcher for Texas, who helped lead the Longhorns to the No. 7 ranking in the country, and the East Carolina pitcher that only gave up one run (to the Cougars) in 14 games before BYU started knocking her around in the championship finale, which wound up being an 8-3 win by the Cougars.
It's all in a day's work for the unflappable freshman, who did admit that she had a tiny case of nerves when starting her first playoff game with BYU.
"I was a little nervous but mostly excited. Once we got past the first couple of innings, I was better," said the shortstop, who's hoping to continue her hot hitting against this weekend's opponent, the Arizona Wildcats, who is ranked No. 10 in the tournament but as high as No. 3 in some polls.
The 5-foot-5 freshman slap hitter's numbers have been staggering, especially as the season moved ahead. She currently tops the team with a .430 batting average and has a team-leading 77 hits this season. And her .477 on-base percentage places her only behind impressive slugger Angeline Quiocho for team honors.
Clayton also loves the feel of the competition in the playoffs, which ratcheted up the intensity to a new level, even though the difference between playing high school ball and college ball was still fresh in her mind.
"It's more tense, more stressful. It's lose and done, but that's what makes it more fun and exciting, too. I'm super excited to be along for the ride and helping to make everything happen," Clayton added about her team's first-ever trip into the new Sweet 16 territory of NCAA softball.
It all started as usual this season for the Cougars with a lengthy 31-game road trip — something sports like basketball and football could never understand. The Cougars started the season 7-0 and played nine opponents ranked in the top 19 throughout the year. Along the way, they defeated the Stanford Cardinal, which was ranked No. 9 in the nation at the time. At the time, it was a victory over the highest-ranked softball opponent BYU had ever beaten.
And Clayton believes the victory over the Cardinal helped the team go into Texas to take on a No. 7-ranked team and a strong East Carolina squad and come away with the wins necessary to send them into this weekend's Super Regionals at Tucson, Ariz., where they'll face the Wildcats.
But playing Arizona in Tucson in the Super Regionals is all new territory for the Cougars, and Eakin is excited for the opportunity perhaps as much as his players, even though it's a daunting task.
"Arizona is stellar in all areas of the game, and they're one of those teams that is just always in the World Series," said Eakin of the Cougars' powerful opponents.
But the Cougars have already done several things this year that they've never done before, so he has hopes that they can go into Arizona and knock off the Wildcats in a best-of-three-games format. And even if they don't, he is proud of this team and believes they should hold their heads high just for getting this far.
"The format allows you to make more adjustments for your opponents," said Eakin.
Players like Quiocho, who led the MWC in so many statistical categories this season and was named Player of the Year, picked up six RBIs in the Regionals, including a grand slam in the game against Texas, and every one else on the team who contributed to the Cougars' history-making season.
Players like sophomore Jessica Dugas, who went 7-of-9 and scored three runs in the Regionals run in Austin; Kristin Delahoussaye, who not only hits but has saved the Cougars several games with spectacular fielding plays this season; and Andrea Ramirez, Caschjen Atagi, Jessica Fitu and Delaney Willard, among all of the other fielders and hitters, who have all made this a memorable season for the Cougars and their growing fan base.
That's not to mention the stellar pitching staff led by Paige Affleck, who sports a 2.22 ERA against all of that tough competition they've faced, and Christie Zinanti, who's been bothered with nagging injuries all season but has come through when she's been healthy enough to pitch. Freshman Hannah Howell also did her part in Regionals when Zinanti couldn't take the circle.
The Cougars, currently 46-11 overall this year, claimed the Mountain West Conference crown on their way to a first-ever Super Regionals berth. Now, they're hoping they can continue to turn their dream season into possibly even more.
BYU softball on the air
NCAA Super Regionals
At Tucson, Ariz.
BYU (46-11) vs. Arizona (46-11)
Friday, 5 p.m.
Saturday, Game 2, 2:30 p.m.
Saturday, Game 3, 5 p.m. (if nec.)
TV: ESPN2 (Friday), ESPNU (Saturday)