Doug Wheelbarger, the women's softball coach at George Mason University, got a flat refusal from Ohio State when he tried to schedule the Buckeyes last week and improve his 38-1 team's chances of making the NCAA Division tournament.
He expected the same reply from Penn State, the other top team in the region. But, to Wheelbarger's delight, Penn State accepted his challenge; Thursday the Patriots will travel to University Park for a doubleheader that could determine if they get an NCAA bid.
"I don't consider it risky to schedule them," said Coach Sue Rankin, whose Penn State team is 22-10 and a top candidate for the East Region at-large bid. "I could have said, 'No,' and we'd have the whole week off, but I figured it would be better to play them and see what they've got. It would be good preparation for the tournament. I guess I'm just a gutsy coach."
Said Wheelbarger: "She could cut her own throat if we sweep them. But I still appreciate what she is doing. I would not have been surprised if she said 'No.' If they played their cards right, they could make it easily. But I guess she still wants a little more attention, and beating a 38-1 team could do that. But you have to remember if we win, we're 40-1.
Only 16 teams will be invited to the NCAA Division I tournament; six will get automatic bids. Besides Penn State and Ohio State, Temple is in consideration for the region's at-large bid. Two other at-large bids are given without concern for geography.
Wheelbarger said he doubts his team could receive much support for an NCAA bid if it did not play top-ranked teams, such as Penn State and Ohio State. Bids are scheduled to be announced this weekend.
Mason is 13-0 against Division I competition. Its only defeat came against Charleston (W. Va.) College April 7.
The team's strength is having no weaknesses.
* In four victories over Virginia, the Patriots shut out the Cavaliers twice and outscored them, 23-7.
* The three-deep pitching rotation has a team earned run average of 1.12, with 17 shutouts. Kay Herbstritt, who lives in Vienna, has nine shutouts in 13 starts and has given up only two earned runs this season.
* The team batting average is .437; seven players have 23 or more RBI.
* The Patriots have hit 15 home runs, their opponents one.
* One indication of both the team's offense and defense is that it has 110 doubles; opponents have 10.
"I think if we played them (Penn State or Ohio State), we'd either beat them or it would be a close game," said the team's only senior, Sis Ward, a four-year starter who has a .441 average and 36 RBI this season. "They'd see how good we are and we'd see how good they are. I think we can play with the top competition."
Depth is one of George Mason's strengths, too.
"Last year we only had two pitchers and it sure makes it easier with three," said Herbstritt.
Freshman Suzanne Ruben, who attended Springbrook High School, is the team's newest pitcher. She's 13-1 this season with a 1.67 ERA.
"But I guess it's coming to an end now," Herbstritt said. "Since there're only eight bids it looks bad. Maybe it just means summer will come early. But there's nothing we can do about it, if they don't chose us, they don't. There's no use arguing."