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Rebels in hunt for MWC softball title

UNLV softball coach Lonni Alameda has spent the past four months preparing her team for the toughest tests the Mountain West Conference has to offer.

It’s time to find out if all that hard work will pay off.

The Rebels (35-25, 10-6 MWC) are in second place as they enter their final week of regular-season play, but they trail Brigham Young by three games with just four to go.

Fortunately for Alameda, two of those games will come against the Cougars. The coach knows Thursday’s doubleheader at BYU (37-17, 13-3) could help UNLV get back into the championship hunt.

“If we play the game fundamentally sound, we’ll be OK,” said Alameda, who is finishing her fourth year at UNLV. “We just can’t give them anything.”

The Rebels will need to sweep BYU and win two games at Utah next weekend in order to keep their title hopes alive. Even then, they would need the Cougars to lose at least one of their final two home games against fifth-place San Diego State in order to draw even.

Rebels sophomore catcher Bri Bernardi knows the Cougars have won 16 of their last 17 games, but she said she still expects UNLV to put up a good fight.

“Obviously, we want to win the conference,” she said. “We’re excited about the challenge, but we’ll just have to take one game at a time. It’s just a matter of playing as a team and knowing that no one person is going to go out and win a game for us.”

Fueling the Rebels’ optimism is the fact that they are 2-0 against BYU this season. They beat the Cougars 3-1 and 5-2 last month in Las Vegas, but this time they’ll have to do it in Provo, Utah.

“We know what it’s like to play there,” said Alameda, who added that Provo’s 4,500-foot altitude can cause problems for visiting teams. “We know how the ball flies.”

Freshman shortstop Jaci Hull said she’s not worried, pointing out that the Rebels won both games of a doubleheader at Colorado State last month. The Rams play in Fort Collins at 7,500 feet.

“We’ve just got to be able to play anywhere, anytime,” said Hull, who is hitting a team-best .367. “We played well in Colorado. Our pitchers do an awesome job. As long as we keep the ball in the park, we’ll be able to succeed. We feel confident against BYU and we always get fired up when we play them.”

And if the Rebels don’t succeed? The Mountain West no longer has a conference tournament, meaning the automatic bid would not be an option. UNLV would instead have to rely on an at-large berth to get into the NCAA regional tournament, which begins May 18. Alameda said she thinks her team is on the bubble.

“We want to win (the MWC), but I don’t think we have to in order to go to the postseason,” said Alameda, whose squad last made the NCAA Tournament in 2005. “We’ve just got to win out. It should be us and BYU going to the postseason if we do a good job.”

Thursday’s doubleheader will begin at 4 p.m. at BYU’s Gail Miller Field.

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