Valdosta Daily Times

Blazers Blog

May 26, 2014

Playing for the title

VALDOSTA — Momentum was gone. Valdosta State's once-commanding lead was on the verge of evaporation as well. Next? Perhaps, the Blazers' berth in the Division II national championship game.

But with one snare by her right hand, sophomore first baseman Kiley Rusen snuffed out a Southeastern Oklahoma squeeze play and in the process, the Savage Storm's fifth-inning rally. The Blazers then finished off a 5-3 win against the Savage Storm at the Moyer Sports Complex in Salem, Va., to advance to the national championship game today when Valdosta State will face top-ranked West Texas A&M at noon. It is the Blazers' second championship game appearance in three years and third in the past five years.

“I'm very proud of them and very happy for them to get the chance to play (today),” VSU coach Thomas Macera said in the postgame press conference. “It's all about these girls. I'm just the guy that gets to sit on a bucket and watch. They played out of their minds today. They got the outs when they needed to.”

Southeastern Oklahoma, which won twice Saturday to avoid elimination and reach the semifinal round, had managed just solo hits in the third and fourth innings off VSU workhorse Brianna Hancock. However, Lauren Renneker opened the fifth with a single and Hancock then walked two of the next three hitters to load the bases with one out, ending her day. Caitlyn Calhoun, who relieved Thursday during the Blazers' first game at the tournament, entered again but the move didn't slow down the Savage Storm.

Sydney Kramer greeted Calhoun with a two-run single up the middle after falling behind 0-2 and Laramie Beal followed with a double to right to pull Southeastern Oklahoma within 4-3 with runners at second and third. Then, on a 1-1 pitch to Haley Strawn, Rusen made the play of the game. With Strawn laying down a squeeze bunt, Rusen charged and scooped up the bunt off one hop with her bare hand and in one motion shoveled the ball home to catcher Morgan Butler in time to tag the sliding Kramer. Calhoun then got Courtney Riddle to popup to escape the jam.

“It got real interesting real quick there,” Thomas Macera said. “It got kind of sporty out there.

“The case here is we have to go out and make a whole lot of plays. And they've been able to do that.”

Said Southeastern coach Ron Faubion: “We tried the squeeze play, and that's a main part of our game and either it works or it doesn't work, and they made a great play on it. Then we popped it up to the catcher and that was the ballgame right there, I thought.”

After that, Southeastern got just a one-out single from Lacie Cook in the seventh but back-to-back flyouts ended the 45-20 Savage Storm's threat and season, sending VSU (48-14) to the championship game.

“Take your hats off to Southeast, they gave us all we wanted I can promise you that,” Macera said. “We had to fight until the end.”

The Blazers' offense was on fire early as the first three hitters reached against Savage Storm starter Mindy McElroy. Following a single from Courtney Albritton to open the game, Shelby Altman doubled her home and then Kiley Rusen singled. Two outs later, Fran Johnson singled to left to plate Altman and Brittany Britt, who pinch-ran for Rusen.

An inning later, Albritton, VSU's first-team All-American crushed a home run to left field to put the Blazers up 4-0. It was the 27th home run of the season for Albritton, one shy of the Division II single-season record and the 63rd of her career, putting the junior alone atop the Gulf South Conference career list.

“Great ballplayer,” Faubion said about Albritton.

Added Albritton: "I wasn't even aware of the record. I wasn't hitting well early in the tournament and I was just so excited to finally hit the ball well and help my teammates that I raced around the bases. Its just such a good feeling to help the team, to know what another run meant for us."

Southeastern Oklahoma intentionally walked Albritton her final two at-bats including loading the bases with two outs in the sixth. Altman, a second-team All-American, then reached on an infield single for her second RBI of the game and provided some insurance for the Blazers.

“We got a timely hit from Shelby, who hit the crap out of that last one there,” Macera joked. “She got all of that one. But it was enough. I don't care how we get the runs, as long as we get enough.

“Courtney just set the career record, but Shelby gets a piece of that because all year if you walk Courtney, you have to deal with Shelby. She's no slouch either.”

Said Altman about hitting behind Albritton: “The way I look at it is, it's not every day that you get to hit behind the No. 1 player in the country.”

But it wasn't needed as the Blazers, the 2012 national champions and 2010 national runners-up returned to the title game and set up the showdown with the Buffs, both teams running through the tournament unbeaten.

“These girls have played in so many big games,” Macera added. “We've had (Alabama) Huntsville come back on us, and Tampa. Our whole year has been fighting through adversity. They're battle tested. They're not going to break down because of pressure. They're just not going to.”

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