NCAA softball tournament

KNOXVILLE REGIONAL

Where: Sherri Parker Lee Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.

When: Friday-Sunday

First-round games: No. 4 seed Charleston Southern (27-31-1) vs. No. 1 Tennessee (42-10), 6 p.m. Friday; No. 3 Virginia Tech (35-21) vs. No. 2 Lipscomb (39-13)

The Charleston Southern softball season began like all others, with virtually no one expecting the Buccaneers to wind up in the NCAA tournament for the first time. But as the big bus pulled out of a CSU parking lot Wednesday, few members of a traveling party bound for an NCAA tournament regional in Knoxville were surprised.

They visualized this.

With all eyes closed and the lights off during team meetings last August, head coach Shane Winkler spoke soothing words. He told the players to think about a celebratory dog pile at the Big South tournament.

With everyone lying on the outfield grass at the practice field in February, Winkler asked the Bucs to take deep breaths. Together, they imagined watching the NCAA softball tournament selection show at Wild Wing Café in North Charleston.

"We didn't just come in hoping to have a good Big South tournament," said Winkler, who borrows some of his approach from prominent sports psychologist Brian Cain. "We really visualized and predicted we would win the darn thing."

So never mind that CSU is 27-31-1 and No. 144 on the softball Ratings Percentage Index list.

Or that the Bucs entered the Big South tournament as a No. 7 seed.

They won four straight games in Myrtle Beach last week, capping a 3-1 championship game victory over No. 1 Coastal Carolina with that merry meeting on the mound. They came home and went to Wild Wing.

No. 4 seed Charleston Southern opens NCAA tournament play Friday at 6 p.m. against 10th-ranked Tennessee, the top seed and host. No. 2-seed Lipscomb and No. 3 Virginia Tech meet in the other first-round game at the double-elimination Knoxville regional.

Relaxation, rally caps

"I believed we could do it the whole season," said freshman pitcher Cheyenne Gandara, the Most Valuable Player of the Big South tournament. "Just knowing how good we are as a team and the way we bond, I was always confident."

Positive thinking was a big part of the Big South tournament. Winkler cut every batting practice short in Myrtle Beach.

"We were given a half-hour to hit each day but we took 25 minutes," he said. "The last five minutes, we laid down on the ground, closed our eyes and had total full-body relaxation. Then we talked about what we were looking to accomplish."

Something worked.

Maybe it was the rally caps, or the paper cups the players taped to their ears while watching in the dugout the last two days of the tournament.

"In the first inning, when Stevi (Johnson) hit a home run and Stephanie (Bergman) beat out the first hit to give us our first run, I think we realized, 'We can actually win this thing,'" said senior infielder Jessica Brock, a Puyallup, Wash., native who leads CSU with a .320 batting average.

Ten of the 19 players on the CSU roster are freshmen. None are from South Carolina, though Winkler has some in-state players coming in for next season.

The Gandara express

Gandara is one of eight players from California. The 5-5 right-hander earned three wins and a save in CSU's four Big South tournament games.

"She had her absolute best stuff when the pressure was on," Winkler said. "I've never heard of a fourth-year or fifth-year freshman but she stepped up and played that way. We relied on her a lot."

As Gandara practiced Wednesday, she wore a "Ready to Rumble" CSU football T-shirt.

A message of toughness for the postseason?

"No," Gandara said with a long laugh. "It's a wear what you want because we're getting ready to leave shirt."

The spirited practice mood included blaring country music as selected by assistant coach Kristen Butler.

"For the most part it's great," Brooks said. "We all like country."

Everything sounds better when you're preparing for a bus ride to the NCAA tournament. CSU is a major underdog again.

Which is fine for a team that keeps visualizing success.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff