Second-place NCAA softball finish for Central—sort of

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(from Central College SID)
PELLA—What might have been.

With a second-place national finish Sunday, the storied Central College softball team recorded its best NCAA Division III tournament showing since winning its fourth crown in 2003, falling in the title game 3-2 to Illinois Wesleyan University on a walk-off eighth-inning home run.

Well, not exactly.

The dramatic contest would have garnered far more celebration had it actually taken place. Instead of being settled on the playing field in Tyler, Texas, the results were determined by a computer on the office desk of Russ Goodman, professor of mathematics at Central. Goodman teaches semester-long sports analytics seminars at Central and created the Midwest Sports Analytics Meeting, which the college has hosted the past four years. That day-long event promotes faculty, graduate and undergraduate research sports analytics.

The softball tournament drama played out game by game on Goodman’s Twitter account over the weekend and generated some buzz in the Division III softball world. Illinois Wesleyan’s virtual victory even resulted in hometown media attention in Bloomington, Illinois.

“I was surprised at the number of people who took an interest in it,” Goodman said.

Goodman, who also serves as an assistant women’s soccer coach at Central, shared the disappointment that Dutch athletes and coaches were feeling after the spring seasons were cut short by the COVID-19 shutdown. The Central softball team was showing early promise, with a surprising 6-1 start after an eye-opening 4-1 effort against some of the nation’s best at the NFCA Division III Leadoff Classic in Tucson, Arizona March 6-8. It vaulted the Dutch to a No. 8 ranking in the NFCA top-25 poll, but that’s where the season ended. So after earlier using statistical modeling to simulate the canceled NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championships, Goodman turned his cyber skills loose on the Division III softball tourney. He created an algorithm relying on data from statistical ratings produced by prominent statistician Kenneth Massey on www.masseyratings.com. Goodman took the top eight teams in Massey’s rankings and put them in the national finals, which were originally slated to get underway Thursday in Tyler.

According to Goodman’s simulation, Central stunned top-seeded Texas Lutheran University 4-3 last Thursday before getting sent to the loser’s bracket with a 6-3 loss to Illinois Wesleyan Friday. The Dutch rebounded with a 6-0 Saturday win over Transylvania University (Ky.), a team Central defeated for real 4-0 March 6. That was followed by a 5-2, 1-0 sweep of East Texas Baptist University, with the latter game going 12 innings.

The three straight victories put Central against Illinois Wesleyan in the best-of-three championship series. Central fell 5-2 in Sunday’s opener and forced a final game with a 3-2 triumph before the Titans prevailed for the title.

Goodman’s algorithm only produced final scores but for his Twitter followers, he heightened the drama with some manufactured theatrics, giving Central its Sunday win on a two-out, two-run seventh-inning double and awarding Illinois Wesleyan the crown on the 12th-inning homer.

“Someone from Illinois Wesleyan asked me online who hit the home run,” Goodman said with a laugh. “I just responded with, uh, let’s go with your left fielder hitting in the four slot. I had no idea.”

It’s possible to simulate those kind of details, but not in the amount of time Goodman could invest while trying to wrap up spring semester classes.

“I know some folks in the sports data world that work really had to create baseball game simulators to go inning by inning, pitch by pitch,” he said. “That’s actually a project I’d really love to do with a student or team of students at some point, but that’s a pretty overwhelming project to try to put together. My idea was to keep it pretty simple and predict what the final scores were going to be, or could be.”

Central’s lofty finish in the simulation was not the result of home-computer bias, Goodman insisted. The simulation is based on the data and percentages, with different outcomes each time the simulation is run. The numbers determined Central’s first-round upset over Texas Lutheran was a possibility, but Goodman almost winced when he saw that his simulation forecast just that.

“I texted a buddy to say my credibility has already been shot,” Goodman said with a laugh “But, honest truth, that’s what the model came up with. And sure enough, Central went on to lose the next game so it’s obvious I wasn’t privileging them too much.”

NFCA Hall of Fame coach George Wares, who has piloted Central to four NCAA titles and is the winningest coach in Division III history with a 1,158-395-3 mark over 36 seasons, said the results weren’t necessarily how the tournament would have played out, but could have.

“I mean obviously what didn’t happen are the regionals and super regionals,” he said. “Those were the top eight teams based on the ratings and we all know it’s likely that not all eight of those teams would have made it to Tyler, because there are always some upsets. But once the final eight were determined, I think it was reasonably realistic.”

Wares has a fascination with data and admitted he followed Goodman’s Twitter feed intently over the weekend. He was not alone. After Goodman reported Sunday’s first-game result, Illinois Wesleyan assistant Nikki Miller tweeted, “Why am I so nervous right now?”

Wares said the simulation produced a bittersweet opportunity to ponder the season’s what ifs, which are the beauty of any athletics season.

“I appreciate what Russ did and I think some of the other coaches, like Brandon Elliott at Virginia Wesleyan, the coaches at Illinois Wesleyan and Margie Knight, who is at retiring at Salisbury (Md.), were following it,” Wares said. “It was fun for people to follow and keep track of. Everybody knows it was just for fun but I think it was something that for players and coaches, I don’t know that if you’d say it was needed after the season was canceled but it definitely helped a little bit.”

Goodman is preparing for the next Midwest Sports Analytics Meeting in the fall and continues to see a mushrooming interest in the field, at Central and also nationally.

“Data is all around us right now,” he said. “There are so many careers in health care and the business world that really need data skills. I’d say I get between 2-5 students every year who come to me saying they want to do so something in data and they love sports. And I smile and say, ‘I’ll suck you in with the sports and you’re going to walk out with some skills you didn’t have before.’ So yeah, students are very interested in this stuff and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.”

But the softball simulation provided a needed diversion for him as well.

“I’m like everybody else,” Goodman said. “After my daughters go to bed, all my wife and I talk about is the coronavirus. If this helped people to talk about something different and take their minds off it, then hopefully it helps them understand the role sports can play in our lives. I am happy to help fill that gap.”