COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Tech softball team is embarking on what may be its most pivotal weekend of the season. The Ohio Valley Conference Tournament is three weeks away, and the Golden Eagles currently sit fifth in the standings. Saturday and Sunday, the Purple and Gold face the top two teams in the OVC: SIU Edwardsville and Eastern Illinois.
Saturday, the Golden Eagles will play in a doubleheader against SIUE beginning at 1 p.m. The Cougars are currently ranked second in the West Division with a 14-2 OVC record and a conference-best 31-8 overall record.
Rounding out the trip, Tech will play Eastern Illinois on Sunday afternoon. EIU holds a 15-2 conference record, placing the Panthers first in the West. They have only dropped two conference games, one to Eastern Kentucky and one to Southeast Missouri.
The Golden Eagle senior class is seeking its third trip to the OVC Tournament. With the addition of Belmont, the tournament field is made up of eight teams. The top team from the East and West Divisions receive automatic bids, and the next six spots go to the teams with the best conference win-percentage.
With the field wide open, Tech will rely on its veterans to carry the load. Senior Melody Christian currently leads the Golden Eagles with a .368 batting average and a team high 50 hits and 26 runs. Christian opened the season on an 11-game hitting streak and is back on track, currently on a seven-game streak.
Brittney Spalding and Chanelle Spalding have proved to be the voice of the Golden Eagle defense. Anchoring the corners at first and third, the twin sisters have remained steady forces offensively and defensively. Brittney leads the team with 11 extra-base hits, including three home runs. Chanelle holds a team-high .983 fielding percentage, collecting 216 putouts at first base.
Claudia Harke (5-7) has also seen increased time in the circle. The right-hander has thrown 67 innings and two conference shutouts.
Tech's seniors are joined by strong sophomore and junior classes. Sophomores Angi Sakamoto and Hannah Eldridge have given clutch performances at the plate. Sakamoto has connected for two home runs in the past seven conference match-ups while Eldridge has also collected two long balls.
With a balanced line-up, Tech has utilized two players in the catcher and designated player positions. Juniors Kendall Hooper and Chelsea Burgess have turned into Tech's power hitters. Hooper averages a .390 slugging percentage, hitting a two-run homer in her last conference outing against Austin Peay. Burgess appears to be the Purple and Gold's ball magnet. The newcomer is currently on a six-game reached base streak, being hit by a pitch in four of Tech's last five contests.
The Golden Eagle coaching staff is no stranger to the OVC Tournament. Head coach Bonnie Bynum won the tournament championship her last three years as a Golden Eagle player. Assistant coach Terry Acheson has been on the staff for 13 of the programs 17 OVC Tournament appearances since the inaugural tournament in 1994.
SIUE: 3-4, The Cougars hold a slight edge over the Golden Eagles in the very brief series. All three of Tech's wins came in last year's three-game series in Cookeville. Tech won the games 4-2, 7-1 and 2-0.
EIU: 31-18, The two teams paired off for the first time in 1995. Tech has the advantage going into the 50th meeting. The Golden Eagles have not taken a series or doubleheader since 2007, but have had great success against the Panthers in the postseason. In 2010 and 2012 the Golden Eagles have defeated EIU to stay alive in the OVC Tournament. Last season, Tech won 3-1.