Oklahoma leads the nation with a 0.87 team ERA. The No. 1 Sooners are the two-time defending champions, looking to make it three times.
Behind OU sits Clemson with a 1.35 team ERA. The No. 10 Tigers feature a deep staff led by one of the nation's premier players, Valerie Cagle, along with three other pitchers sporting sub-2.00 ERAs.
The third-lowest ERA? Well, that resides in Conway with a two-woman staff leading the way for No. 24 Central Arkansas.
At this point in the season, the Bears (39-9) are a known commodity, and a great deal of that has to do with the success of Jordan Johnson and Kayla Beaver. That all started before the season began, with an inner belief that they were just as good as any of the Power 5 pitchers out there.
"We know what we can do, and we're just as good as everybody else at this point," Beaver said. "A lot of people look at us as, 'Oh, they're just a mid-major.' I think our pitching staff is the one of the best in the country. I mean, I don't think anybody would argue with us on that. We come in there, get the job done, face these bigger hitters against these bigger teams, and we've shown that we can compete with the rest of them."
Beaver, a redshirt junior, and Johnson, a redshirt senior, have dominated their way through UCA's schedule. Beaver has the 11th-lowest ERA in the country with a 1.21, and Johnson isn't far behind with a 1.64. They've combined for 16 shutouts, one no-hitter and are holding opponents to a .202 batting average with just over one strikeout per inning.
"It's rare for us to have this," UCA Coach Jenny Parsons said. "Two of them pitching this well. You don't really see it unless you see it in the Power 5. They've done a great job all year long."
What makes UCA's pitching staff unique isn't its level of success, but rather the number of people responsible for it.
Of the seven teams with an ERA below 1.60, UCA is the only school without three pitchers that have recorded 50 innings or more this season. Other than a 1/3 of an inning on Feb. 25, Beaver and Johnson are responsible for every inning pitched by UCA.
"Beaver and I, we knew coming in this year, we'd have to have each other's back and I think we've done that very well," Johnson said. "There are games [where] I go in and I'm not feeling it, and I can call on her and know she's gonna come in and pick me up. I know she feels the same for me."
Johnson and Beaver provide hitters with two similar, yet distinctly different looks from the pitcher's circle. Both right-handers, Beaver's fastball gets up above 70 mph -- equal to over 100 mph in baseball -- while Johnson sits in the low-to-mid 60s.
Beaver said her go-to pitches are the curveball and riseball, feeding off of one another. Johnson said her go-to pitches would have to be the changeup -- a pitch she and Parsons spent time last season working on but didn't click until she went to the Florida Gulf Coast League this past summer.
"It was really cool because if the hitter isn't expecting it, and especially if they just sit there and watch it, I'm like, okay, like, that's good," Johnson said. "A lot of times, like strikeouts on power pitches. It's like oh, like they just missed. But on a changeup. It's like they're so fooled and that's how I know I'm doing it right."
Led by shortstop Madi Young, who was named the ASUN's Defensive Player of the Year Tuesday in her first season in Conway, the Bears have the seventh-best fielding percentage nationally with a .980. They've committed 25 errors which is tied for the fourth-fewest of any team.
"They've made spectacular plays that normally would be hits and maybe runs and, you know, we couldn't do it without them," Johnson said. "They've been even better this year than I could [have] imagined."
With two elite pitchers showing different looks, and an elite defense, the Bears are primed for postseason softball where runs are hard to come by.
"I think it's gonna be huge, I really do," Beaver said. "Everybody, they've seen us, they've seen film on us. I mean, everybody knows what everybody throws at this point. But I feel like the way that we pitch, we're going to be just fine. It's gonna keep everybody off-balance and keep everybody guessing."
UCA's first ASUN Tournament game is at 11:30 a.m. Central today against North Alabama in DeLand, Fla. The top-seeded Bears face the No. 5 Lions after North Alabama defeated Jacksonville on Tuesday and Florida Gulf Coast on Wednesday. North Alabama was one of two schools to beat UCA in conference play this season.
"We know what we have to go in there and do," Beaver said. "The expectations were set really high for us this year after last year, and I think we more than exceeded those expectations. And so it's really exciting to see what we're capable of and what we're gonna do."
At a glance
ASUN SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
All times Central
GAME 3 (2) Liberty vs. (3) Jacksonville State, 9 a.m.
GAME 4 (1) Central Arkansas vs. (5) North Alabama, 11:30 a.m.
GAME 5 (4) Fla. Gulf Coast vs. Game 3 loser, 2 p.m.
GAME 6 (7) Austin Peay vs. Game 4 loser, 4:30 p.m.
GAME 7 Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 11:30 a.m.
GAME 8 Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 2 p.m.
GAME 9 Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 winner, 4:30 p.m.
GAME 10 Championship game (Game 7 winner vs. Game 9 winner), noon
GAME 11 If necessary, 35 minutes after conclusion of Game 10
ASUN Softball Tournament
No. 1 UCA vs. No. 5 North Alabama
WHEN 11:30 a.m. Central today
WHERE Patricia Wilson Field, DeLand, Fla.
RECORDS UCA 39-9; North Alabama 31-14-1
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