ROCKINGHAM — Usually by this time in the Southeastern Conference season, there is a clear distinction between the playoff teams and the ones playing out the schedule.
Not this year.
With only three schools automatically qualifying for the postseason and seven wild-card berths available in baseball and softball, finishing in the top three in the conference is more important than ever.
Right now, there are only a handful of givens with the SEC tournaments set to begin next week.
The first is the Richmond Senior softball team will be the No. 1 seed in the league tourney. More importantly to Wendy Wallace and her team, it will open the state 4A playoffs at home against the fourth-place team out of the Greater Neuse River Conference.
Another item that is etched in stone right now is Hoke will finish sixth in both baseball and softball. The Bucks are winless in SEC play in both sports currently and will face the No. 3 seed in next week’s tournament.
In soccer, the picture has become crystal clear. Lumberton clinched the top seed in the conference tournament and will be the No. 1 team from the SEC when the playoff brackets are announced. Lumberton earned this honor after sweeping Pinecrest this season. The Patriots will be the No. 2 seed and will receive the other bye in next week’s conference tournament.
Hoke is the No. 3 team and will open the SEC tourney against Purnell Swett, the sixth seed. Scotland has secured fourth place and will square off with Richmond, not only Thursday in the regular-season finale, but also in the opening round of the conference tournament.
In order for Scotland, Richmond or Purnell Swett to automatically make it into the 4A playoff field, they would need to capture the conference soccer tournament.
Turning back to baseball, two schools have their own destiny in their hands — Richmond and Lumberton. If both win the remainder of their games, then it would force a two-way tie atop the SEC standings with identical 8-2 records. The Raiders and the Pirates would have split their season series as well as the one with the Patriots. This would force the final tiebreaker to determine the top seed in the conference tournament — the dreaded coin flip.
For the purposes of the 4A playoffs, the team that advances the furthest in SEC tournament would get the higher seed in the postseason.
If Richmond were to win its final game, but Lumberton were to either lose to Scotland tonight or Purnell Swett Thursday, then the Raiders would earn the conference title outright. The same would hold true if Lumberton wins the rest of its contests, but Scotland knocks off Richmond Thursday night. This would give the Pirates the SEC crown.
After these things get tricky and could even bring Pinecrest back into the picture for earning a share of the league title.
If both Richmond and Lumberton were to lose to Scotland, Lumberton tops Purnell Swett and Pinecrest knocks off Hoke, then all three schools would finish the season with 7-3 records. All three schools would have split their regular season contests with each other as well as Scotland, forcing the teams to draw numbers out of a hat to determine the seeds for the conference tournament.
There is another chance for a three-way tie for first and would give one school the edge in the tiebreaker to grab the top seed in the SEC tourney. If Richmond loses to Scotland, Lumberton defeats Scotland, but falls to Purnell Swett and Pinecrest stops Hoke, then all three teams will be 7-3. In this scenario, Lumberton would be the No. 1 seed because it would have swept the season series with Scotland. Richmond and Pinecrest would flip a coin to determine which team would get the other first round bye.
Another way Pinecrest would keep its conference title hopes alive is to beat Hoke, have Scotland knock off Richmond and have Lumberton lose its final two games. This would force a tie at the top between the Raiders and the Patriots as well as for third between the Pirates and the Scots. And once again the only way to break the tie in both circumstances would be the coin flip.
On the softball side, things haven’t been finalized other than Richmond has clinched the regular season title and Hoke will be the sixth seed.
Pinecrest is second with a 5-4 record and is a half-game ahead of both Scotland and Purnell Swett. Lumberton is fifth with a 3-5 mark.
The Patriots wrap up their SEC slate with a home game against the Bucks Thursday, while the Scots and the Rams still have two games remaining. Scotland will welcome Lumberton to Laurinburg tonight before heading to Rockingham to face Richmond. Purnell Swett will close out with two road games — Hoke and Lumberton.
In an interesting twist, two of the teams involved in the chase for second swept the season series from one of their opponents. Purnell Swett downed Pinecrest in both of their matchups this year, while Pinecrest pulled out the brooms against Scotland. The Scots and the Rams split their two contests.
If Pinecrest were to win its final game, it would receive no less than the third seed in next week’s conference tournament. The same would be true for Purnell Swett if it were to win out. Scotland, on the other hand, would need to win its final two games and have Pinecrest and Purnell Swett lose to garner the No. 2 seed. Otherwise, the Scots are looking at being the fourth seed in most scenarios.
Lumberton is lurking in the background with an opportunity to improve its position, as high as third. For this to occur, the Pirates would have to win out and get receive a good amount of help.
The big key to determining how the baseball and softball standings will shake out involves tonight’s contests between Lumberton and Scotland. Victories by the Pirates opens up several possibilities, while a Scots’ win will make things a little less open.
Sports editor Shawn Stinson may be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14 or on Twitter @scgolfer.