McNeese and 2017 Southland Coach of the Year James Landreneau, who were unanimously tabbed to win the Southland for the second consecutive season, welcome former head coach Joanna Hardin and her Virginia Caviler squad to begin the 2018 Cowgirl Classic on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Houston Baptist will also compete in the tournament.Sam Houston State competes against Texas State at 6 p.m. in San Marcos, Texas, while Lamar will try its luck in getting games in at the Sand Dollar Classic, beginning its tournament play at 7 p.m. against Virginia Tech. Southeastern Louisiana’s host tournament, the Lion Classic I, has been cancelled, so the Lions and Nicholls will start their season next week. The remaining five league teams – Abilene Christian, HBU, UIW, Northwestern State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi – will get their season started Friday.For the first time in 30 years, eight teams will compete at the Southland Conference Softball Tournament. McNeese will host the 2018 tournament May 8-11 at Cowgirl Diamond.McNeese Cowgirls – Preseason Ranking: 1 – 2017 Record/Place: 43-18 (24-3 SLC), 1stMcNeese heads into the 2018 campaign with high expectations of becoming the first Southland program to capture seven regular season titles. The Cowgirls are tied with former Southland member Texas State for the most championships. They will look to three-time Southland Player of the Year Erika Piancastelli and junior outfielder Justyce McClain along with the other four McNeese preseason all-conference selections to help lead the team to the NCAA Regionals for a third consecutive season. The well-rounded club led the Southland a season ago in batting average (.296), slugging percentage (.460), on base percentage (.399), runs scored (368), hits (471), runs batted in (325), doubles (85), home runs (52), total bases (732), walks (229) and in league action led all teams with a 1.41 ERA and allowed just 55 runs.First game – Thursday vs. Virginia at 5:30 p.m. CT – Lake Charles, La. (Cowgirl Classic hosted by McNeese)Abilene Christian Wildcats – Preseason Ranking: T2 – 2017 Record/Place: 33-22 (20-7), 2ndIt’s a big season for head coach Bobby Reeves and his team as Abilene Christian enters its first season eligible for Southland and NCAA postseason play since completing its transition Division I. The Wildcats return 12 players from last year’s roster, including three-time all-conference shortstop Peyton Hedrick and preseason all-conference first team selections second baseman Holly Neese and pitcher Hannah Null. ACU boasted the best ERA in overall games at 2.36 in 2017 and limited opposing teams to a league-best .210 batting average. In Southland games, the Wildcats led the league in hits (232) and were second in batting average (.309), slugging percentage (.451), on base percentage (.382), runs scored (147), runs batted in (132) and home runs (132).First game – Friday vs. Seton Hall at 11:30 a.m. – San Antonio, Texas (UTSA Softball Classic hosted by UTSA)Nicholls Colonels: Preseason Ranking: T2 – 2017 Record/Place: 37-20 (19-8), 3rdFollowing a trip to the Southland Conference Tournament championship, Nicholls comes into 2018 with five preseason all-conference selections, including first team members junior first baseman Kasey Frederick and pitcher Megan Landry and sophomore outfielder Samantha Mracich. In conference action last season, the Colonels had the second best batting average (.286) and were third in slugging percentage (.375). Nicholls also ranked second in the conference for ERA (2.53) and opposing batting average (.226).First game – Feb. 16 vs. Appalachian State at 12 p.m. – Montgomery, Ala. (Black and Gold Tournament)Lamar Cardinals – Preseason Ranking: 4 – 2017 Record/Place: 33-31 (17-10 SLC), 4thLamar reached the National Invitational Softball Championship in 2017 and look to be another force in the Southland in 2018, returning 13 letter winners, including three preseason all-conference second team selections: senior pitcher Laura Napoli, senior outfielder Corina Thornton and junior second baseman Kelly Meeuwsen. The Cardinals had the second-best overall on base percentage (.372) and were even better in league action (.379). Head coach Holly Bruder saw her bullpen strikeout the most batters looking in conference games (39 along with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) and had a third-best ERA of 2.41. LU will face four “Power Five” members in its opening tournament: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, No. 11 Alabama and Ole Miss.First game – Thursday vs. Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. – Gulf Shores, Ala. (Sand Dollar Classic)Central Arkansas Bears – Preseason Ranking: 5 – 2017 Record/Place: 26-34 (14-13 SLC), T5thCentral Arkansas was going to open its 2018 campaign at the Sand Dollar Classic with Lamar, facing No. 11 Alabama, Virginia Tech, Florida A&M and Penn State, but weather forced the team to enter the ULM Mardi Gras Classic this weekend. The Bears return one all-conference member from a season ago in freshman designated player Cylla Hill. The now-sophomore was one of just four freshmen honored with all-Southland recognition in 2017 after hitting .250 and slugging .355, reaching base at a .317 clip. Head coach David Kuhn’s biggest gap to fill will be in the circle after the graduation of Kayla Gomness, who started all four games for UCA in the 2017 Southland Tournament that saw the Bears fall just short of making the championship.First game – Thursday vs. UT Martin at 2 p.m. – Monroe, La. (ULM Mardi Gras Classic hosted by UL<)Northwestern State Lady Demons – Preseason Ranking: 6 – 2017 Record/Place: 23-33 (12-15 SLC), T7thNorthwestern State could likely field seven underclassmen in the eight field positions in its opening weekend series at Baylor. Head coach Donald Pickett, who enters his 10th season at the helm, has a young squad in 2018 but pairs that with a veteran pitching staff in senior pitcher Michaela Bouvier and junior Mikayla Brown. He also returns senior outfielder Sidney Salmans who was voted onto the preseason all-conference team.First game – Friday vs. Baylor at 6 p.m. (DH) - Waco, TexasSam Houston State Bearkats – Preseason Ranking: 7 – 2017 Record/Place: 24-27 (14-13 SLC), T-5thHead coach Bob Brock enters his 17th and final season in charge of Sam Houston State. The all-time winningest coach in program history announced his retirement earlier this week. He brings back 12 players from 2017, including preseason second team all-conference selection Lindsey McLeod. The junior pitcher from Austin ranked second in the Southland last year for opponents’ batting average (.206), striking out 110 batters along the way. First game – Thursday vs. Texas State at 6 p.m. – San Marcos, Texas (Bobcat Classic hosted by Texas State)Southeastern Louisiana Lions – Preseason Ranking: T8 – 2017 Record/Place: 26-29 (12-15 SLC), T7thSoutheastern Louisiana senior outfielders Kinsey Nichols and Mahaila Gibson each earned preseason honors heading into 2018. Nichols was second in the league for batting average (.393) and on-base percentage (.489) in 2017. Gibson won Newcomer of the Year last season after posting a .317 batting average in her first season as a Lion. Southeastern ranked first for stolen bases in 2017 with 162. The Lions also return all but one pitcher from last year, including seniors Lacey Hill and Rachel Hayes.First game – Feb. 13 vs. Louisiana Tech at 5 p.m. - Hammond, La.Stephen F. Austin Ladyjacks – Preseason Ranking: T8 – 2017 Record/Place: 17-33 (9-15 SLC), 9thSecond-year head coach Nicole Dickson is the first Southland team to take the diamond in 2018. Dickson returns nine letter winners from a season ago and welcomes 11 newcomers, including six transfers. Senior catcher Amber Landry, a preseason all-conference first team automatic selection, looks to build off a 2017 year that saw her own a .290 batting average in 145 at bats, registering 42 hits with 14 doing for extra bases along with five home runs.First game – Thursday vs. Grambling at 10 a.m. – Monroe, La. (ULM Mardi Gras Classic hosted by ULM)Houston Baptist Huskies – Preseason Ranking: 10 – 2017 Record/Place: 17-26 (8-19 SLC), 10thEight starters return to a Houston Baptist squad searching to make its first appearance in the Southland Conference Tournament since 2014. The Huskies lost just two letter winners from last season. They will open their season at the Cowgirl Classic, taking on Virginia, Southern and Tulsa and will not hit conference foe McNeese. First game – Friday vs. Virginia at 1 p.m. – Lake Charles, La. (Cowgirl Classic hosted by McNeese)UIW Cardinals – Preseason Ranking: 11 – 2017 Record/Place: 13-40 (6-21 SLC), 11thThe Joe DiPietro era of UIW softball begins this weekend when the Cardinals head to Austin this weekend for the Texas Classic. They will open the tournament with a contest against Colorado State on Friday at 1:30 p.m. before facing the Longhorns at 4:30 p.m. on the Longhorn Network. UIW will face both teams again in the weekend and also take on Wisconsin on Saturday at 6 p.m.First game – Friday vs. Colorado State at 1:30 p.m. – Austin, Texas (Texas Classic hosted by Texas)Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders – Preseason Ranking: 12 – 2017 Record/Place: 12-36 (4-20 SLC), 12thSecond-year head coach Blake Miller opens the season at the UTSA Invitational, where his Islander squad will see Seton Hall, Southern Illinois, UTSA and even get a taste of Southland competition when the team faces Abilene Christian on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. With the graduation of ace pitcher Liz Carter, Miller will be in search early on to establish a presence in the circle. Carter led all Southland pitchers in batters struck out with 179.First game – Friday vs. Seton Hall at 2 p.m. – San Antonio, Texas (UTSA Invitational hosted by UTSA)Each game is listed in Central Time Week One NotesFRISCO, Texas – The 36th edition of Southland Conference softball begins with five Southland teams in action Thursday. Stephen F. Austin and Central Arkansas get the day started with a pair of games each at the ULM Mardi Gras Classic. The Ladyjacks take on Grambling at 10 a.m. CT in Monroe, La., and play UT Martin immediately after at noon. The Bears, who had to cancel their trip to the Sand Dollar Classic in Gulf Shores, Ala., this weekend due to weather, were able to enter the ULM tournament and play UT Martin at 2 p.m. followed by an 8 p.m. contest with North Texas.