Stakes High as BIG EAST Softball Enters Final Weekend of Regular Season

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -The 2011 BIG EAST Softball Championship begins in one week, when eight teams head to Ulmer Stadium on the campus of the University of Louisville.
Seven teams can make their travel plans already. The eighth participant will be decided following what figures to be an exciting final weekend of BIG EAST play.
The scenario for the final spot is simple. Providence currently holds the No. 8 position in the standings as the Friars sit in the clubhouse with a 7-13 BIG EAST record (23-29 overall). The only team that can jump ahead of Providence is Connecticut (6-12 BIG EAST, 19-27 overall), which hosts No. 21 Notre Dame (16-1 BIG EAST, 41-8 overall) for a three-game series beginning Saturday in Storrs, Conn. The Huskies would need to win two of the three games against the Irish to finish percentage points ahead of Providence and claim the final postseason spot.
While Connecticut is playing for its postseason life, Notre Dame has its sights set on a BIG EAST regular-season title. The Irish enter the weekend a half-game behind DePaul in the standings and will turn to the potent offensive punch of centerfielder Alexa Maldonado and third baseman Heather Johnson to try and leap ahead of the Blue Demons. Maldonado is second in the BIG EAST in batting with a .414 average to go with a league-leading 47 runs scored. Johnson is right behind Maldonado in the batting race at .404 to go with 11 home runs and a BIG EAST-leading 58 RBI.
Connecticut has some power of its own, though, as shortstop Julianne Towers brings 10 home runs and 39 RBI into the weekend.
DePaul has the inside track on its third straight BIG EAST regular-season title as the Blue Demons could capture the crown simply by winning out against USF this weekend. DePaul has won 15 straight and enters the series with a 35-11 overall record and a 17-1 mark in BIG EAST play. Alex Morocco enters the weekend as part of the BIG EAST's .400 club (.403), while pitcher Kristen Verdun brings a 21-3 record with 134 strikeouts in 158 innings into the series with USF.
USF, which is still mathematically alive for the regular-season title and No. 1 seed in the BIG EAST Championship, figures to ride the left arm of rookie sensation Sara Nevins against DePaul. Nevins is 14-7 with a 1.69 earned-run average to go with 180 strikeouts in 141 innings, establishing herself as a bona fide national rookie of the year candidate.
Syracuse and Louisville have both clinched spots in the BIG EAST Championship and have a chance to improve their seeds when they play a three-game series. Louisville heads to Syracuse in fourth place in the standings at 12-4 in the conference (34-14 overall), while the Orange - who won the 2010 BIG EAST title - sit in fifth place at 12-5 in the circuit (38-11 overall).
The Cardinals have won 15 of their last 19 games and hope to remain hot despite having played just one game since April 21. The balanced Louisville lineup has hit a collective .328 and features seven players with at least 22 RBI, including rightfielder Hannah Kiyohara, who is batting .398 entering the weekend. Syracuse counters with a pitching staff that has limited its opponents to a .190 batting average and has turned in a 1.81 ERA this season. Veteran Jenna Caira leads the way with a 28-9 record, a 1.39 ERA, six shutouts and 274 strikeouts in 227.1 innings of work.
Pittsburgh has its last series before beginning postseason play as the Panthers host Villanova. Pittsburgh is 10-8 in BIG EAST play and 31-16 overall after seeing a seven-game winning streak snapped by Notre Dame Wednesday. The Panther lineup is anchored by third baseman Kelly Hmiel, who has a league-leading 15 home runs with 50 RBI and a .397 batting average, ranking in the top six of the BIG EAST triple crown categories. Villanova, which saw an 11-game losing streak snapped with a split against Rutgers last week, looks to close the season on a positive note. Third baseman Kristi Burlin (.325, 8 HR, 30 RBI) leads the Wildcats.