Blossoms Denied NCAA Berth

Arkansas-Monticello won 40 softball games, the Great American Conference regular-season championship and the conference tournament. Yet the Cotton Blossoms found out all of those accomplishments would not be enough to get into the NCAA Division II tournament.

Coach Alvy Early doesn’t understand why.

“A lot of people don’t,” he said. “It’s disappointment, and it’s hard to understand. They can try to justify categories such as strength of schedules. Ours was as tough as anybody.”

UAM was denied a third straight berth to the NCAA tournament, coming out of a conference that just finished its first season of competition. As a new league, the GAC was not granted automatic-qualifier status, and Early believes the conference will not have it until 2014 at the earliest.

Still, the Blossoms finished with a 40-14 record, doing what only 19 of this season’s 64 NCAA qualifiers did and reach the 40-win plateau. Two teams in UAM’s region, the South Central, had 40 or more wins, but neither Angelo State (44-9) of Texas nor Missouri Western State (42-11) won their conference tournaments.

“I know we are one of the best Division II teams in the nation,” Early said. “When we can’t get that recognition from our own region committee, I think this brings out some serious character flaws from the voters in our region.”

The voters determine regional rankings, which are used to determine seeds, with the top eight in each poll advancing. (Each region is then broken into two four-team brackets.)

UAM was not ranked in the most recent South Central poll released Wednesday, but it ended No. 7 Southeastern Oklahoma State’s chances by beating the Savage Storm 9-2 in Saturday’s GAC tournament final in Bentonville.

Early said the Blossoms have averaged 47 victories the past three seasons and played more neutral-site games in 2012 than any other Division II team. UAM went 14-8 on neutral diamonds, but was 0-3 in games against Angelo State and Missouri Western State — never losing by more than three runs.

Those games were played in February. UAM closed its season winning 26 of its last 30 games, going 21-6 in the GAC and earning pitcher (Kayla Jackson) and coach (Early) of the year awards in the league.

“We lost some games we probably should have won and we won some games that were a little bit surprising, but I hate to think losing a game in February kept us out of the tournament,” Early said. “We won 26 of 30 games. No one else has done that.”

Without a bid, UAM won’t have a chance to improve on its strong finishes in two previous NCAA appearances. UAM reached the Super Regional in 2010 where it lost to Valdosta (Ga.) State two games to one and made it to a regional final in 2011, where it fell to West Alabama.

Players weren’t made available for comment, but Early said they were devastated by the voters’ decision. He didn’t want the snub to take away from the season they had.

“I hate it worse for our seniors,” Early said. “We were there last couple of years. … We get to this particular time and we have a lot of seniors who have been there and done that.

“I think it shows great disrespect for the Great American Conference. It’s like they’re saying we don’t belong.”