Valdosta Daily Times

March 3, 2013

No. 1 Blazers sweep Union in conference openers

Ed Hooper
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The top-ranked Valdosta State softball team earned a pair of tough fought victories over Union Saturday in the Gulf South Conference opener for both teams.

Playing in cold and blustery conditions, the Blazers (15-2, 2-0 in GSC) overcame a deficit in both games, including a five-run deficit in game one, to secure a pair of wins, 7-6 and 5-3. The Blazers will host North Alabama today at 1 p.m.

“The one thing you can say about our team is they will definitely scrap,” Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said. “They aren’t going to quit. That is the big thing about this team.”

In both games, the Blazers overcame shaky pitching with powerful offensive innings that helped erase deficits.

In each game, it was key hits by sisters Morgan and Fran Johnson that helped the Blazers fight back and grab the lead.

“Here are two games that we could’ve easily lost,” Macera said. “In the first game, we were down 5-0. Not many teams can overcome that….We fought back hard and win a game that (Union) probably thought was over.”

Morgan, the senior, hit a 3-run home run in the fourth inning of game one to tie the game at 5-5. Then trailing 6-5 in the sixth inning, Johnson delivered the game-winning double that scored sophomore Courtney Albritton, who finished the day 3 of 7 with two runs scored and two RBIs.

Fran, a sophomore, finished the day 3 of 4 with three RBIs, all of which came on a three-run home run in the Blazers’ four-run fourth inning in game two.

“Fran hit that one bomb and that was huge,” Macera said. “We lose if we don’t get that one.”

The Johnson home runs were just two of many on the day. Valdosta State second baseman Karson King also hit a home run in game one, which tied the score at 6-6 in the fifth inning.

Union finished the day with four home runs, including three that came in the game one loss to the Blazers. The home runs came off three different Blazer pitchers, which allowed a combined 22 hits and nine runs on the day.

Following Saturday’s doubleheader, Macera and pitching coach Lindsay Campana, a former Division I pitcher at North Carolina State, spoke with the pitching staff at length.

“We think it is a focus thing,” Macera said. “We are just trying to get them to understand they need to focus a little harder. We’re just trying to figure some stuff out. We aren’t yelling at them; we’re just trying to work some stuff out.”

In the circle, senior Kenzi Reed earned the win in both games. Reed pitched in relief in game one, allowing no runs on two hits in the game. She also earned the win in game two, as a starter. Reed allowed 1 run, which was unearned because of an error by Morgan Johnson, on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings. Hanna Lythburg, who earned the save and got out of a bases loaded jam in the fifth inning,   replaced her.

A major strong point for the Blazers on Saturday was defense.

In both games, relay throws from the outfield helped save runs and preserve leads, something Macera was pleased with.

“The outfield came up with some big plays,” Macera said. “And that is the thing, our defense is bailing out our pitchers. That is OK. That is why it is called a team sport. All of our outfielders can throw and that is a big thing.”

Game one: VSU 7, Union 6

Union raced out to a 5-0 lead before Valdosta State came charging back with a five-run fourth inning. Both teams hit home runs in the fifth inning to make the score 6-6. VSU took its only leaf of the game in the bottom of the sixth inning on an RBI double from Johnson.

The Lady Bulldogs took a 2-0 lead in the first inning behind three hits off VSU starter Brianna Hancock, who struggled again in the fourth inning.

Hancock allowed three more runs in the fourth, all coming on Union home runs. Keaton Kirk started the inning with a hit-by-pitch, and scored on a two-run home run by Carter Mansolino. During Mansolino’s at-bat, an inside pitch by Hancock was ruled a dead ball after it hit her during a swing that came with two strikes. Instead of being ruled a strikeout; Mansolino was given another opportunity, which she used wisely with her home run.

Two batters later, Alex Williams hit a home run to left field, giving Union a 5-0 lead.

VSU’s five-run fourth inning, all coming with two outs, was carried by Morgan Johnson’s home run that scored Albritton and Kylie Rusen. Albritton also drove in a pair of runs on a double, scoring Brittany Britt and Fran Johnson.

The teams swapped home runs in the fifth inning, with King’s homer to centerfield tying the game at 6-6 in the bottom half of the inning.

The Blazers took the final lead of the game in the sixth inning when Johnson ripped an RBI double into left centerfield to score Albritton.

Game two: VSU 5, Union 3

After three scoreless innings, Union took a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning, only to see the Blazers respond with a four-run fourth.

Fran Johnson’s home run in the inning propelled the Blazers ahead. Morgan Johnson started the inning with a double, and was followed by a double from Shelby Altman that scored Johnson. Then, King walked and was pinch-ran for by Britt. Two batters later, Johnson connected on her home run.

The Blazers added another run in the fifth inning when Altman hit a sacrifice fly to right field, scoring Hannah Strickland from third.

Union got a pair of runs back in the sixth, but never got closer.