Bulldog softball headed to NJCAA Tournament

LUFKIN — What a weekend for Coach Jessica Karenke-Burke and her pressure-tested Navarro Bulldogs softball team!

All the East Zone Champions did during the course of 15 games in a tense four-day, double-elimination Region XIV Tournament was something special to behold.

The unranked Bulldogs (38-22) emerged with the program’s fourth NJCAA Tournament berth and first since 2005 by:

* going 4-2 during an arduous six-game tournament that featured a total of 9 one-run games and three others decided by two runs;

* winning three games by shutout behind the sterling pitching of sophomore Ciara Luna;

* surviving to play three back-to-back games on a windy, humid Tuesday;

* escaping the blast-furnace heat of a bases-loaded, none-out situation in the 7th inning of the elimination-bracket final behind No. 2 starter Stephanie Buenrostro.  Buenrostro, who had worked only 2/3 of an inning in the tournament until Tuesday, recorded the biggest save of her pitching life — one that earned the NJCAA Tournament at-large berth;

* controlling emotions from a stake-filled, 2-0 win over Galveston that also included securing head-coaching career victory No. 500 for Karenke-Burke; and,

* rallying off the deck from a three-run, sixth-inning deficit in Championship Game 1 against 10th-ranked Blinn to win their third one-run game, hand their Buccaneers their first loss in 10, and force Championship Game 2.

And those were just some of the highlights from an unforgettable tournament in which every movement, plan, pitch, throw and catch became magnified in importance by game.

Back on Valentine’s Day, the Bulldogs were 5-13.

Since that time, they’ve gone 33-9 to earn themselves more playing time May 13-16 at St. George, Ut., and a shot at a national title.

Now, a total of 14 of the 16 teams are qualified for the NJCAA Tournament.  District E (Regions 6 and 9) pits Barton CC, Ks., against Western Nebraska CC in Scottsbluff, Ne., Wednesday and Thursday. District N (Region 18’s Scenic West Athletic Conference), featuring ranked Salt Lake CC and College of Southern Idaho, settles by Saturday at Salt Lake.

Navarro (38-22) is one of four Texas softball programs to qualify for the 16-team field: Region XIV champion Blinn (43-14) and Region V winners Howard (45-12) and Temple (49-10).

Two opponents the Bulldogs played at the Indian Creek Tournament in Atmore, Ala., in February, also have qualified for the 2015 NJCAA Finals — Wallace State-Hanceville (62-12) and Chattanooga State (45-11).

May 13-16 at St. George, Utah

District       Regions        Team (Record)
A                      1                       Eastern Arizona (45-16)
B                      2, 23                Northeastern Oklahoma A&M (46-14)
C                      5-W                 Howard (45-12)
D                     5-N                   Temple (49-10)
E                     6, 9                   Western Nebraska (56-12)
F                     7                        Chattanooga State (45-11)
G                    8                        Chipola (44-10)
H                    8                        Miami Dade (31-19)
I                     10,15,20,22       Shelton State (32-24)
J                     11, 18                 Jefferson College, Mo. (55-4)
K                    14                       Blinn (43-14)
L                    14                        Navarro (38-22)
M                   17                        Georgia Perimeter (25-19)
N                   18                        Salt Lake CC (47-7)
O                    22                       Wallace State-Hanceville (62-12)
P                    24                        Wabash Valley (37-11)