With or without Missouri, the show will go on.
The 2018 Southeastern Conference Tournament begins Wednesday in Columbia — marking the first time the city has played host to the event since the Tigers joined the league in 2012. The conference’s top 12 teams, 11 of which are ranked in the latest USA Today/NFCA Coaches Top 25, will compete in the four-day, single-elimination tournament at Mizzou Softball Stadium, with the top four seeds — Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee — receiving first-round byes.
Here are some storylines to follow over the next few days in Columbia.
Top-seeded Gators look for SEC Tournament redemption
Thanks to a deep lineup and two all-conference selections in the circle, Florida (47-8, 20-4 SEC) dominated competition both inside and outside the SEC in 2018.
Junior pitcher Kelly Barnhill led the conference in wins (25) and strikeouts (267), while senior pitcher Aleshia Ocasio tallied a 1.25 ERA as the Gators’ second starter. Ocasio also earned a first-team All-SEC utility player selection for her play as a designated player and a frequently used pinch-runner.
Despite advancing to the championship series at the 2017 Women’s College World Series, Florida entered the 2017 SEC Tournament as the No. 1 seed and was eliminated in its first game against Mississippi.
Unlike the 2017 campaign, however, the Gators enter the 2018 postseason on hot streak; they’ve won 13 of their past 14 games. Coach Tim Walton will try to turn that momentum into success in Columbia against the winner of No. 8 seed Alabama and No. 9 seed Auburn at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the tournament’s second round.
Rebels rally for final tournament spot
Mississippi, the only nonranked team to qualify for the conference tournament, snuck into the field during the final weekend of the regular season.
The Rebels secured two upset wins over the second-place Georgia Bulldogs to earn a series win, which vaulted them past Missouri in the SEC standings and into the 12th and final seed in this week’s tournament.
Although impressive, Mississippi isn’t new to the late-season magic. After upsetting Florida in the first round of the 2017 SEC Tournament, the Rebels went on to win four straight and captured their first conference title. They’ll have their work cut out for them in Columbia, though, having won just one of their eight conference series in 2018 and matching up against fifth-seeded LSU in a first-round matchup at 4 p.m. Wednesday. The Tigers have already defeated Mississippi twice this season.
Georgia looks to cap sensational turnaround
The Bulldogs, who missed the 2017 conference tournament, engineered an impressive turnaround from last place to second in 2018.
Much of Georgia’s success can be attributed to a deep and potent offensive attack. The team leads the SEC in batting average (.335) and ranks second in both home runs (55) and stolen bases (81).
The Bulldogs have been slumping late, however, and have seen their run production dip in series against Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi.
The team will benefit from a first-round bye before playing the winner of Arkansas and Kentucky, two teams that have struggled to keep runs off the board this season, at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
Supervising editor is Brooks Holton: email@example.com, 882-5730.