Jim Kulawiak has found himself in a familiar, if uncomfortable position. The coach of the North Central softball team is looking for a way to refocus his team for the CCIW Tournament after a slow finish to the regular season.
"We did not finish on a very good note in the last week or two. We only have another couple of days to rectify it," Kulawiak said. "We have seemed to have this over the last few years where we get off to a great stretch then around this time of the year we struggle."
This year's Cardinals burst to a 21-3 start. While they earned a spot as the No. 3 seed in the conference playoffs, they have struggled down the stretch, going just 8-6, including losing both games of a doubleheader to Augustana to end the season.
North Central went through a similar struggle to end their 2013 season. That team won their first 19 games of the season before going 7-7 over the last two weeks of the regular season. While they still made the conference tournament, they were the first team eliminated, losing their first two games.
Kulawiak said he and his coaching staff are working with the team to help correct this tailspin. The biggest problems have been errors and a sudden lack of offense, Kulawiak said.
"We have not been playing consistently on defense, we have been giving up four or five outs an inning," he said. "Along with that we have not been scoring like we were earlier in the year. All the losses we scored 2 runs or less except for one game in which we scored 3."
Kulawiak and his team will need to make the corrections soon. Their first playoff game is a rematch with Augustana on Friday at Illinois Wesleyan. The coach said his team would have to be prepared for an Augustana team that is good at putting the ball in play and making things difficult on the defense. While he would not say his plan of attack for the game he did say that their recent games would give a sense of familiarity with each player he hopes the Cardinals can use.
Along with Augustana, the Cardinals, Carthage and host school Illinois Wesleyan round out the playoff teams. North Central split its games against each of the other two teams.
There is some precedent for North Central to turn its late-season struggles into postseason success. In 2011 the team went on a similar slide to end the year. However, they swept their way to a conference championship and a bid to the NCAA playoffs. Kulawiak said he believes this team can refocus.
"I don't have any doubt in my mind that we are capable of beating those teams, but in order to do that you have to play at a higher level than we have been," Kulawiak said. "The players know that and know they are capable of doing that."