The Chattanooga State softball team has proved it can be dominant, even against strong teams, as when it started this season with 10 consecutive wins in Nevada that included 7-2 victories over schools then ranked No. 1 and No. 9 in the country.
The Lady Tigers won 13 times before losing and have won 32 of their last 33 games, and they proved last week in the NJCAA Region VII tournament that they could be clutch as well as stifling. On the way to the championship, they won twice after hitting tying home runs in the seventh inning.
They spent several weeks ranked No. 1 in NJCAA Division I, only to fall to second behind Salt Lake Community College in the final regular-season poll after splitting a road doubleheader against the nation's 15th-ranked team. But now at 56-4, Chattanooga State starts play Thursday in the national tournament at St. George, Utah, as the No. 1 seed.
Salt Lake, based four hours from the tournament site, is 55-7 and seeded No. 2.
This is Chattanooga State's 16th trip in 18 years under coaches Frank Reed and Beth Keylon-Randolph, and the Lady Tigers have won 588 games in the latter's 11 seasons -- an average of 53.5 per year.
Their best finish in the nationals was third in 2008, but they never have been seeded first before.
Is this the year they break through and win a national title?
The opportunity starts Thursday at noon EDT against 16th-seeded Aiken (S.C.) Tech, which is 32-29. But Chattanooga State's bracket also includes No. 4 seed Pima (Ariz.), which was that No. 9 team losing to the Lady Tigers in late January and now is 53-13.
The Lady Tigers' second game will be against Seminole State (44-19-1) of Florida or two-time runner-up and 2008 champion Wallace State of Hanceville, Ala., the ninth seed despite a 56-10 record.
Although Chattanooga State did not make the trip last year, Keylon-Randolph acknowledges that her program's tradition as well as this year's talent and depth make it the logical favorite.
"We know a lot of teams out here. We've seen them and they've seen us, so yes, there's definitely a target on our back," she said. "And I love being in that position.
"Plus, our team's hungry to prove that we belong in that No. 1 spot. The national championship is something we've worked so many years for, and this team wants to be the one that gets it. But it's one game at a time and we know we can't take anybody for granted.
"Everybody's a winner here. Every team had to win to get here, so they've played good ball at the right time."