The two teams needed no introduction. They know one another just fine.
For the Valdosta State Blazer softball team, playing rival Alabama-Huntsville is the biggest games of the season. On Saturday, in front of the largest crowd in school history (652), the Blazers stepped up and showed out against their rival, beating the Chargers 6-1 and 4-3 in a doubleheader at the VSU Softball Complex.
With the wins, VSU improved to 4-0 this season against its conference rival, 37-2 overall and 20-0 in Gulf South Conference play.
"It is always tough," Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said. "Every year when we play (Huntsville), it is us and them in our conference, and it just keeps getting harder. We just know each other too well."
Macera, and his team, were also very thankful for the crowd, which played a key factor, especially late, in the outcome of the games.
"These fans are into the game, they are not just hanging out with their buddies," Macera said. "They are screaming and yelling the girls on, stomping in the stadium, you have the crazies out in the outfield, and I mean these girls know they are here to watch them play and they are here to see good ball. So, the support in Valdosta for softball, Division II softball, is second to none."
"When I was at Georgia, we had some great crowds, but this topped it off at VSU," Hadley said. "It was great. We had people in the outfield, in the stands, along the fence. It was awesome and it was really motivating."
April Hutchens was 4 for 5 with a run batted in and a run scored, while fellow senior Natalia Morozova was 3 for 4 with two RBI and a run scored, which came on a game one home run. Courtney Albritton was 2 for 5 with 3 RBI and two runs scored, including a game one homer.
"Today, we had a lot of adrenaline going," Hutchens said. "From the moment I walked into the locker room today for warm ups, we were all energetic, and the crowd just gives you a whole different momentum of the game."
In the circle, Valdosta State received two solid outings. Alanna Hadley earned her 19th win of the season, going the distance in game one. The senior from Dacula allowed one run on five hits, while striking out five. Hadley also earned the save in game two, pitching the seventh inning, after replacing starter Brianna Hancock. Hancock was pulled in the seventh after surrendering a leadoff walk.
"They pitched unbelievable," Macera said, "And Brianna probably could have gone and finished (the second) game, but my thinking was that I have a really good No. 1 that is having a really good year. You have to feel the game, and you have to make what you feel like is the best decision."
Valdosta State connected on 11 hits, including three home runs, to earn a 30th straight victory in game one. Five of VSU's six runs scored in the opening game came with outs already recorded in the respective innings.
"It is huge, it is just timely hits," Macera said. "The old saying is, 'I'd rather have timely hits than a great hitting team,' and that is the truth. You can hit it all day, but if you can hit it at the right time then you are out. We got the hits when we had runners in scoring position. Girls coming up big with clutch hits. That was the difference in the game."
The Chargers jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, as Stephanie Needhman connected on a homer to left field, but the Blazers quickly responded with a run in the bottom of the inning.
Albritton reached base on a hit-by-pitch, and moved to third base on a sacrifice bunt from Morgan Johnson, narrowly beating out a throw to the base.
She scored two batters later on a Marti Littlefield single. The RBI was the only one of the day for Littlefield, and she remains three home runs and five RBI away from becoming the conference's all-time leader in the respective categories.
The Blazers grabbed the lead in the second inning, as Hutchens reached base with a two-out single. The following at-bat, Albritton blasted a two-run homer to straight away centerfield, giving VSU a 3-1 lead.
"I have no doubt that if I get on base that I am going to be scoring, some how with one our girls in the lineup," Hutchens said.
An inning later, the Blazers grabbed a 4-1 lead as Samanatha Posey managed a home run that barely cleared the left field fence. Morozova followed up Posey homer with one of her own in the fifth inning, scoring her and Johnson, who reached base on a walk to start the inning. The two-run homer gave VSU a 6-1 lead.
"It made me so happy," said Morozova, who sprinted the base pads after the ball left the park. "That is why (I ran) so fast. It felt amazing, the change up right over the middle — perfect."
Morozova also made several exceptional plays at first base throughout both games, helping provide a solid glove at the corner.
"It is way mental," Morozova said. "The game is probably over half mental, and I have learned a lot over the past month about how to play the mental game…We, as a team, are mentally smarter, at the plate and in the field."
The Blazers had an opportunity for more runs in the sixth inning, as Hutchens, Albritton and Johnson managed three straight singles to start the inning. Hutchens was ruled out at home plate on Johnson's single, after the throw to home plate hit Posey, the next batter in the lineup, in the head, after she interfered with the play at the plate.
Albritton was ordered to return to second base. Posey and Littlefield then flew out to end the inning.
Despite being out hit 8-4 in game two, the Blazers managed a 4-3 victory. It didn't come easy, though.
Valdosta State trailed 2-0 heading into the bottom of the fifth inning, but the Blazers sprang for four runs, using two Charger errors and a walk, along with two singles to score the runs.
"We were down up there, both games," Macera said. "Both games we won up in Huntsville, we were down. So I mean, we were going to hit sooner or later. We were going to make some plays and we just have to understand that there are seven innings in a ball game."
Morozova started the inning with a walk, and was immediately pitch ran for by Fran Johnson. Following a fly out from Ashley Steinhilber, Angela O'Connor reached base on an error from the UAH shortstop, which was followed by an RBI single from Sarah Vaughn, which scored Johnson.
Then, Hutchens delivered an RBI single, advancing to second base on an error from Huntsville second baseman Kellie Johnson. Albritton then managed a sacrifice fly to center field, which was dropped by the outfielder, allowing Vaughn and Hutchens to score, along with Albritton to reach base.
UAH managed to take a 2-0 lead in the game, scoring a run in the first inning and another in the third inning. In the seventh inning, the Chargers managed to make the game interesting.
Following the leadoff walk surrendered by Hancock, Hadley struck out Huntsville leadoff batter Kelli Long, but surrendered a double and an RBI single, which made the score 4-3. Then, Hadley calmed down to force a pop fly to shortstop. With the crowd on its feet, Hadley was able to record a strikeout to end the game.
"I am not going to lie, I was sweating a little bit," Hadley said about the seventh inning. "It was awesome. I was so happy (to get the outs). I knew my defense had my back, and I was trying to definitely hit a corner."
VSU wins 31 straight, sweeps UAH 6-1, 4-3
The two teams needed no introduction. They know one another just fine.
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