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Softball hosts No. 24 Ohio State this weekend

BY IAN MARTIN | APRIL 30, 2010 7:30 AM

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After starting the Big Ten season 8-1, the Iowa softball team seemed like a lock for the NCAA Tournament.

Now on a three-game losing streak, the Hawkeyes (24-17, 8-3) are in a must-win situation this weekend when they host No. 24 Ohio State (30-11, 10-2) for two games.

Iowa’s postseason hopes rest on its final eight games, during which the Hawkeyes will play three ranked Big Ten opponents in their last four series.

After hosting the Buckeyes, Iowa will travel across the Mississippi River for a double-header against No. 19 Illinois on May 5 before hosting No. 2 Michigan for two games on May 14 and 15.

“The only thought we have right now is that we know the games are going to get tougher,” Iowa head coach Gayle Blevins said.

The selection for the NCAA softball tourney is similar to that in college basketball. A team that wins the conference tournament — or in the case of the postseason-less Big Ten, the regular season — will go to the field of 64.

The rest of the 34 spots are filled through at-large bids, with consideration given to RPI, among other factors.

The Hawkeyes’ tournament résumé may have taken a blow on Wednesday when they lost to Northern Iowa, 8-7, in extra innings.

Down 7-1, Iowa rallied to tie the score with a Chelsey Carmody home run in the bottom of the seventh. But the Panthers took advantage of a shaky outing from starting pitcher Amanda Zust to grab one run in the eight inning for the win.

The players were disappointed after losing their last nonconference regular-season game of the year, but they seemed to think it was better to lose a close contest than in a blowout.

“We actually want to use it and know that our games are going to be tough,” Carmody said. “[It’s important] knowing that we could’ve come out on top.”

After giving up five earned runs in eight innings, Zust said that even though she had a rough outing, it’s good not to forget a tough game.

“Every game is a learning experience,” she said. “We’ll kind of reflect on it … and use it to know what we have to get better at.”

The motivation from Wednesday’s loss, coupled with the importance of this weekend’s games, will loom when Iowa plays a heavily hyped Buckeye squad.

On Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio State became the first Big Ten team to defeat Michigan, formerly the lone unbeaten in the conference. The 5-3 win put the Buckeyes in second place, 21⁄2 games behind the Wolverines.

Iowa sits in fourth place, four games back of the leader.

But standings aside, winning five of the last eight games remains the Hawkeyes’ goal despite their loss to the Panthers — arguably the easiest opponent at the end of schedule.

The Hawkeyes said they still believe accomplishing the feat would likely put Iowa right back into the discussion for an NCAA bid.

“It’s nice right now, because we still have more than five games to win,” Carmody said.

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