“What could have been” for Division III championship

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The coronavirus preliminarily ended what was shaping up to be an exciting Division III softball season, and there was no opportunity to see some of the best D3 teams compete for a national championship. Thanks to one math professor, though, we have an idea of what could have been.

Russ Goodman is a professor of mathematics and an assistant soccer coach at Central College, a Division III school in Iowa. In March, he simulated the Division I ‘March Madness’ basketball tournament following its cancellation; his math had Creighton winning over Duke in the national championship game. After basketball, though, Goodman turned his attention to the diamond.

“I know many of the other coaches [at Central College],” Goodman said. “I wanted to ease the suffering of the softball coaching staff. They were off to a great start this spring with championship aspirations. I felt that they, and some other teams across the country, could use some closure on the season, seeing how things might have played out, and so I collected some data online and worked to create an algorithm that would give a prediction of how a game between any two teams might play out.”

Goodman didn’t want to reveal too many details of the “special sauce” that he used to create the simulation, but he did lend some insights into how the idea came to fruition. In addition to a number of variables that were used in consideration for the project, Goodman noted, “I used a statistical computing program called R to write an algorithm to insert a bit of randomness and to compute the runs scored by each team in any given softball matchup.” Some of those initial variables included strength of schedule; Massey Ratings; and runs both scored and allowed per game, among others.

Since Goodman’s simulation was intended to fill the proverbial shoes of the national tournament, eight teams made up the field. To be as fair as possible, Goodman chose the teams ranked in the top eight in the final Massey Ratings and seeded them accordingly. In an interesting twist, the Central College Dutch snuck in at the #8 seed; that meant that Goodman’s home team would be in the field.

“This was indeed a labor of love, but know that I was rooting for the tournament itself over the Central College Dutch,” Goodman was sure to point out. “After Central’s first game, a big upset of powerhouse Texas Lutheran, I figured my credibility was shot but I had to stay true to the results of my simulation, and I did. Central ended up doing well, but I was just pleased to see folks were paying attention and getting excited about it.”

Excited indeed. As Goodman announced simulated game results and matchups on Twitter, members of other teams and fans alike clamored for the action. Some expressed excitement, while others professed nervousness for their team’s next result. In the absence of actual on-field play, simulated action was better than nothing.

While the computer algorithm did the work on deciding scores and results, Goodman added a little something extra as he shared the information online. “I made plans to embellish the stories just a bit,” he said. “If my prediction was for a game to be 3-2, I might create a storyline where the game went nine innings and, depending on who was the home team, write a narrative for a team winning in the bottom of the 9th, or scoring the winning run in the top of the 9th on an interesting play like a double-steal. [There’s] lots of fun there!”

Illinois Weslyan – the 4th-overall seed at the start of the bracket – was crowned the champion of Goodman’s simulated bracket. The “win” garnered local news coverage and social media celebrations, but to the man behind the endeavor, there was another, even greater benefit.

“I’m like everyone else in that, once my daughters go to bed, all my wife and I talk about is the coronavirus,” Goodman said. “If this simulation helped people to talk about something different, take their minds off coronavirus, and to understand the positive role sports can play in their lives, I was happy to help fill that gap.”

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