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May 11, 2014

Bottom of the order lifts Blazers past host Spartans

VSU, Tampa to meet again today for region crown

TAMPA, Fla. — They had made no contribution — and barely any contact — entering the final stretch of Saturday's showdown against Tampa in the NCAA South Region tournament.

Deadlocked with the host Spartans heading into the bottom of the sixth, the last four batters in Valdosta State's order had gone a collective 0-for-8 with eight strikeouts — four on called third strikes. His agitation mounting, coach Thomas Macera knew pinch-hitting wasn't the answer.

Preaching was.

"What I was tired of was taking that third strike looking," Macera said. "I said, 'We're not taking that third strike looking no more. Swing the bat, whatever happens happens. But nothing good happens by looking.'"

Moments later, the Blazers took charge of this double-elimination tournament in one fell swat. Actually, two.

Freshman No. 7 hitter Morgan Butler's double off Spartans ace Kayla Cox in the sixth provided the game-clinching RBI in the Blazers' 5-2 triumph at Naimoli Family Stadium. VSU, which got a two-run single from Courtney Albritton three batters later, is the only remaining unbeaten squad in the four-team field.

The Blazers can lock up a South Super Region berth today at 1 p.m. against the host Spartans, who rebounded to beat Delta State 3-0 in an elimination game. If they lose, the teams meet again at 3:30 p.m.

"It was really reassuring and it was really great," said Butler, 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in the tournament before her decisive hit. "This team always has your back, they're always there for us. You've just got to re-set and just go back at it."

The sixth-inning outburst dislodged an otherwise tense matchup in which Blazers right-hander Brianna Hancock (eight strikeouts) and Spartans righty Julia Morrow (10) mostly stood throw-to-throw with each other.

The Blazers had taken a 1-0 lead in the third inning on Albritton's two-out solo home run to left center, her 25th of the season. Tampa tied the score in the bottom of the inning, but VSU made it 2-1 in the fourth when third baseman Hannah Strickland laid down a textbook suicide squeeze bunt to score Brittany Britt, running after Kiley Rusen doubled.

The Spartans (32-7) staged a bizarre two-out rally in the sixth on a double by right fielder Katlyn Raatz (a .183 hitter) sandwiched between two walks.

A wild pitch scored Lindsay Dring on a close play at the plate, but Butler — in the game's headiest play — immediately threw down the line to pick off Raatz trying to steal third.

Moments later, the bottom of the Blazers' order emerged from its slumber.

With one out and pinch-runner Brandi Blount on second, junior Fran Johnson walked, prompting Spartans coach Leslie Kanter to replace Morrow with Cox, the Sunshine State Conference Pitcher of the Year (0.96 ERA) and native of nearby Riverview.

Butler, the first batter Cox faced, sent a curve to the fence in right center field. Freshman Heather Robinson followed with a walk, setting up Albritton's two-run single two batters later. In two South Region games, Albritton (.454) is 4-for-7 with a homer, five RBI and a walk.

"Best player in Division II softball. Best player I've ever coached in my life," Macera said of Albritton, the three-time Gulf South Conference Player of the Year.

"I've known her for five years. ... She is the most complete individual that you have ever met, and I'll bawl my eyes out when she graduates. I'm getting choked up now."

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