Out in the southern plains of Kansas is the most dominant junior college softball team in the country.
The Butler Grizzlies are well on their way to back-to-back NJCAA national titles with a 26-0 record to start the 2017 season.
And, in the first regular season NJCAA poll released last week, the Grizzlies returned to the No. 1 ranking in the country.
It's their first regular season No. 1 ranking since 2014. But, the bigger prize is winning a championship once again.
Do you think the defending champions felt just a little slighted when they started the season ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll?
Central Florida took the No. 1 spot in the preseason, which seems to be a big motivating factor for Butler this year.
The Grizzlies are the last undefeated team in the country. They had the best start in school history, and they have won 64 games in a row going back to last season.
Right on their heels is the No. 2-ranked Chipola (Florida) Indians, who the Grizzlies beat in the national title game last year.
Chipola is 32-2 on the season, and the Indians were not even ranked in the preseason poll. That changed with their hot start as they try to chase down Butler for another shot at a national championship.
Butler Has Survived Close CallsGetting to 26-0 has not been easy for Butler this season. Sure, the Grizzlies had their fair share of blowout victories this year. But, they've also had some very close calls.
The first scare was a 7-6 extra-innings win over Galveston College in the third game of the season. In that matchup, Butler had to rally from two deficits in extra innings -- first to tie and then to win the game.
Then, it looked like Butler was going see its streak snapped at the Texas Crossover in Beaumont, Texas, at the end of February.
The Grizzlies opened the tourney on Feb. 28 by rallying from a 7-6 deficit to beat Trinity Valley Community College 10-7. That pushed Butler to 56 straight wins, which the athletics department claims to be a college softball record.
The next day, the undefeated Grizzlies were again on the ropes against a 2-15 Northeast Texas Community College squad. After falling behind 4-0 heading into the sixth inning, Butler was able to avoid an inexplicable loss by putting together three runs in the sixth and three more in the seventh to win 6-4.
The Grizzlies' comeback was fueled by two homers, an RBI error, and a two-run single in the last two innings.
Since the scare in Beaumont, the Grizzlies have outscored their opponents 66-8. It looks like the message got across.
What Has Been Butler's Key to Success?Sometimes you need a little luck mixed with skill to maintain a perfect start and win 56 straight games. And, Butler has plenty of skill in the circle and at the plate.
Ace pitcher Regan Mergele is 11-0 on the season, and she is averaging 10.13 strikeouts per seven innings. Those Ks will get a pitcher out of any sticky situation.
Also, Celina Sullivan is 4-0 and has a high strikeout ratio of 9.82 Ks per seven innings.
Overall as a staff, Butler has the second-lowest ERA in the country, just behind Chipola. And the Grizzlies have the highest strikeouts-per-seven-innings ratio in the country.
Then, in the batter's box, the team has a terrific .379 batting average and has scored 252 runs, which ranks fourth in the country.
The key, though, is the Grizzlies' ability to get a lot of walks to build and extend rallies. As a result, the team's on-base percentage is .468, which is top 10 in the country. That means nearly every other hitter is getting on base during a game.
Does Butler Have A Weakness?While their pitching is excellent and their hitting is superb, the Grizzlies do have one weakness: fielding.
Butler ranks No. 67 in the country with a .936 fielding percentage. Also, the team has committed 45 errors this season, which averages to nearly two per game.
So far, Butler has been able to avoid a loss, despite its poor fielding. But, as the season goes on, watch out to see if it costs the Grizzlies a game and their streak.
More importantly, Butler needs to be sound on the field during the Region IV tournament at the end of April if it wants to make the NJCAA Softball Championship in mid-May.
So far, though, the Butler Grizzlies have proven they are a championship quality team for the second year in a row.