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BYU seniors McKenna Bull and Lauren Bell have already left marks on the Cougar softball program's record book, but this week they'll try to write a storybook ending to their collegiate careers by winning a regional in their backyard.
The 21st-ranked Cougars (44-11) open NCAA Regional play against Mississippi State (36-20) at 4 p.m. Thursday at the University of Utah's Dumke Family Softball Stadium in Salt Lake City. It will mark the 13th consecutive NCAA Regional appearance for the Cougars, who won the West Coast Conference for the fourth straight season.
For the first time in a decade, the regional will be close to home for the Cougars. Their past three regional appearances came in Washington (2014), Oregon (2015) and Missouri (2016). The last time the team played in a regional in Utah came as the host school in 2007.
"All my friends and family get to come out and watch me at least one last time, so that's exciting," Bull, the team's star pitcher, said. "Obviously you always dream about playing in the regional, and it's exciting to be able to share that with so many people."
The Cougars swept the WCC Tournament earlier this week with Bull, a former high school standout from Ogden, taking home Pitcher of the Year honors for the third consecutive season. Bell, an accomplished middle infielder from Murray, claimed the Defensive Player of the Year accolade for the second year in a row.
"I just think its really exciting to be able to kind of finish your career in your hometown, just knowing that you have all that extra support," Bell said. "[In the past] you have everyone watching us on TV and stuff like that back at home, but we have a chance to really be supported here, and it just feels really nice."
Another Utah native, Caitlyn Larsen Alldredge, an infielder/outfielder from Centerville, garnered the WCC Player of the Year honor, while Cougar outfielder Rylee Jensen won Freshman of the Year and coach Gordon Eakin won Coach of the Year.
Eakin, now in his 15th season at the helm of the program, regards the success of the Cougars and local softball talent going hand in hand.
"What's happened in our program is, as we've grown, Utah softball has grown," Eakin said. "Utah softball has gotten better and better and better.
"We've been able to go after and get the better kids from Utah to commit to our program, starting with this class McKenna and Lauren's class, Caitlin following right after them."
Bull will leave the program as its best pitcher in history. She holds career records for wins, complete games, shutouts, saves, innings pitched and strikeouts.
She heads into the regional ranked among the nation's most dominant pitchers this season with a 1.23 earned run average and 226 strikeouts (top 20 in both). She also had a stretch of 572⁄3 consecutive scoreless innings this season.
The Cougar offense has also been potent this season. It came into this week among the top 15 in NCAA Division I in batting average (.320, 14th), scoring (6.04 runs per game, 15th), slugging percentage (.517, eighth) and on-base percentage (.411, 14th).
The WCC has just one team BYU among the top 100 in RPI. The Cougars also won three games against nationally ranked competition this season (3-7), including a 4-3 win over regional host Utah.
"I totally expected our senior class this year to be that class that would perform the way they have right from the start freshman, sophomore, junior, senior years and it has happened," Eakin said. "As a coach, you don't always project it correctly. For me, I projected it, I think, accurately and I think this is the best team we've ever had.
"That could change day to day, but we've proven over the body of the season that we can play with anybody and that we're a pretty good team. We expect to go until they stop playing softball in June."
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No. 21 BYU vs. Mississippi State
P NCAA Regional Thursday, 4 p.m. Dumke Family Softball Stadium, University of Utah