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May 16, 2014

On the road again

VSU’s path to nationals goes through Huntsville

VALDOSTA — Valdosta State will have to take a different road to a third straight trip to the NCAA Division II national tournament. Quite literally.

After the Blazers took advantage of the comforts of Steel’s Diamond to win South Regionals and Super Regionals the past two seasons, VSU will have to win on the road for the second straight weekend to punch its ticket in 2014. After winning the South 2 Regional in Tampa a week ago, Valdosta State now heads to rival Alabama-Huntsville for the best-of-3 Super South Regional showdown with the Chargers. The series begins at 6:30 p.m. today with the second game at 2 p.m. Saturday. The third game, if necessary, would follow at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

And that sounds perfectly fine to the Blazers.

“We would have liked to host and that would have been great and better because we would have been able to bring it back home to Valdosta and everybody here in Valdosta would have been able to enjoy it and been in the moment with us,” senior shortstop Shelby Altman said. “But going to Huntsville and getting to beat them on their home turf, that’s going to be a great moment too, really enjoyable.”

Added senior pitcher Brianna Hancock: “We would have loved to play here just because of our huge fan base and the great facility that we have, but we have a lot of confidence that a lot of our fans will make the trip and we’ll probably have more fans than they do. And it’ll make the victory a little sweeter when it comes at their house. That’s fine with me too as long as we get the ‘W.’”

If the No. 16 Blazers — who are 43-13 after winning seven of eight postseason games already as they captured their sixth consecutive Gulf South Conference championship two weekends ago in Cullman, Ala., followed by the perfect weekend in Tampa — are to get that opportunity, Altman and Hancock will likely play a pivotal role.

Altman, the all-GSC and all-South Region first-team shortstop, has hit .404 with 21 home runs, 67 RBIs and 63 runs, while also providing stellar defense. She has been even better of late as she is hitting .483 (14 of 29) in postseason play with two home runs, six RBIs and eight runs scored. Three-time GSC Player of the Year Courtney Albritton, who has been named the South Region POY for the second straight year, has led VSU with a .443 average, 76 runs, 25 home runs and 64 RBIs as the two have formed a potent 1-2 punch at the top of the Blazers order.

Hancock, meanwhile, was the star of the South Regional as she threw three gems in leading the Blazers to the tournament title. She twice outdueled Tampa ace Julia Morrow, who finished the year with just a 0.72 ERA, allowing 19 runs and 13 earned — five coming against the Blazers.

“Last week we played Tampa and they had the best pitcher in the country, so I don’t know that if there’s any game bigger than that one,” VSU coach Thomas Macera said. “They had the best pitcher in the country and we score five off of them. Nobody else in the country had done that all year, so that type of game there was really special for us because the best pitcher in the country that everyone has struggled against and we had success there.”

Added Altman about the lift Hancock has provided: “It’s the most amazing feeling because we’re so proud of her and the way that she’s come out. That just makes you want to play and come out and do an outstanding thing for her because she’s doing outstanding things for us on the mound. I can’t even explain it, because to stand there behind her and to watch those pitches go across the plate. I’m just standing there watching pretty much because you know that nobody’s touching it. And we’re just happy to be a part of it because she’s been dominating on the mound.”

For the season, Hancock has struck out 191 batters in 187 2-3 innings to craft a 2.76 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .234 against the senior right-hander.

“The only thing I take away from pitching three games is just the memories,” she said. “You make memories when you’re watching too, but to be in that moment and feel those feelings and watch your team come out with the victory and make those great plays behind you and great hits at the plate. Just to be in that moment and be a part of that starting lineup, that means everything to me.”

But for the Blazers to add some more memories and earn that return trip to the national tournament, they first have to go through the No. 8 Chargers, who are 47-10 overall. Alabama-Huntsville lost the first game of the South 1 Regional a week ago before winning four straight games to advance, including a comeback, extra-inning win to clinch the regional.

The Chargers also earlier swept Valdosta State at Steel’s Diamond. And did so in convincing fashion, edging the Blazers 9-8 in the first game before adding 12-3 and 6-2 wins in early April.

“When we played Huntsville here, we didn’t play very well at all actually,” Macera said. “We didn’t pitch well, actually. We did everything else well, we just didn’t pitch well.”

VSU played much better when it returned the favor May 2-3 at the GSC tournament. The Blazers edged the Chargers 4-3 in the winner’s bracket finale and then overpowered UAH 11-7 in the championship game.

“It was just a different day,” Altman said. “That’s all it was, just a different day. We came out and played harder and we took an extra gear at every moment that we could. We came together as a team and just took it away from them.”

Added Macera: “At the conference tournament, Bri was just lights out. She threw great, we played great defense behind her and we hit like we always do.

“It’s the same stuff. We’re not going to try anything different.”

Said Hancock about the difference: “When (the freshmen) started believing, it all started clicking and we hit a high and have just been going with that.

“We saw that we could do it. Huntsville is not better than us, and I think we came out knowing that and believing that and it showed.”

Playing with confidence shouldn’t be a problem at all for the Blazers this week. After all, they have their sights set on Salem, Va., and the national tournament.

“That’s the goal we have coming in the year is to compete in postseason,” Macera said. “We’re not here to just compete in the regular season, our goal is to compete in the postseason. This is the goal for the team.”

Plus, the Blazers do have a little extra motivation.

“We’re looking at it like we’re going to take it on their home turf just like they took it on our home turf,” Altman said. “They came and beat up on us, we’re going to take it back to them and show them what it’s like to get beat on their home turf.”

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