Valdosta Daily Times

Local Sports

May 22, 2014

Ultimate final exam

VSU hopes studying, prep lead to second national title

VALDOSTA — Once they beat Alabama-Huntsville and punched their return ticket to the NCAA Division II national tournament, the Valdosta State Blazers started doing their homework.

What the Blazers found was Wayne State has a stout pitching staff. And that top-ranked West Texas A&M and LIU Post have offenses that at least rival the firepower VSU possesses.

But as the Blazers readied for the tournament opener today when they face Wayne State at 5 p.m. at the Moyer Sports Complex in Salem, Va., and hopefully a stay that lasts through Monday’s national championship game, their biggest focus was making sure they stay in peak form as they prepare for their final exam.

“We’ve checked out some of the stats just to get a glance at what’s going to be there,” VSU junior star Courtney Albritton said. “ But we’re not really worried. We know if we play our best that we can do it.”

VSU, which enters 45-14, certainly has played their best recently. Whatever obstacle presented itself, the Blazers found a solution. Getting swept at home to rival UAH in early April, the Blazers simply regrouped and went on a tear that has included 14 wins in their past 16 games. That run also featured four wins against the Chargers in five attempts, including last week’s South Super Regional.

“There’s been so many people count us out, and we’ve had a lot of things said about us that we couldn’t make it this far,” VSU injured senior Karson King said. “It’s great to prove people wrong again. It’s definitely given us a challenge to have people say those things. And to get this far is definitely an accomplishment, but we’re definitely not done yet.”

Added VSU coach Thomas Macera, who is guiding the Blazers to the national tournament for the fourth time in five years: “We’ve been battled tested. The last five games we’ve played have been against two of the best teams in the country. The last five games have been out of control, so we’ve been battle tested.”

But perhaps the test that can help the Blazers the most heading into the showdown with the 46-10 Warriors today was the South 2 Regional in Tampa, Fla. The Spartans possessed a pair of dazzling pitchers in Julia Morrow and Kayla Cox. Combined the duo had a 0.65 ERA with 370 strikeouts in 258 2-3 innings. VSU bested Tampa twice, a 5-2 win in the winner’s bracket final and then 1-0 in the regional title game. All six runs were earned after the aces had allowed just 14 earned runs all season.

That success and the confidence boost it provided could be the difference when VSU has to face Wayne State and either Lyndsay Butler or Briana Lee. Butler, a redshirt freshman, comes into the national tournament with a 0.86 ERA and 292 strikeouts in 204 1-3 innings. Lee, a junior, has posted a 0.95 ERA with 202 strikeouts in 147 1-3 innings. They have allowed just 45 earned runs all season.

“I think it’s helped us tremendously,” Albritton said. “ Especially being confident seeing those good ERAs. But playing Tampa and good pitching and Huntsville and good hitting, I think it’s helped prepare us a lot.”

Added Macera: “It’s going to help us a lot because their pitchers are similar. We know we can beat those type of pitchers. It doesn’t really give them an edge, but at least they’re not going in there going ‘Oh crap, this pitcher has 200 strikeouts.’ We’ve seen this.”

Part of that confidence too comes from an offense that has carried on VSU’s tradition of being lethal. Led by Albritton, who in addition to being named the Gulf South Conference Player of the Year for the third time, has set three single-season conference marks with 80 runs (breaking her own record of 77), 26 home runs (breaking former VSU star and current assistant coach Marti Littlefield’s mark of 25) and 192 total bases (breaking Littlefield’s record of 191); one career conference record with 530 total bases (topping Littlefield’s 525) and has tied two other conference marks with 231 runs and 62 home runs.

Shelby Altman has added a .404 average with 21 home runs, 70 RBIs and 63 runs, while Kiley Rusen has smacked 11 home runs with 47 RBIs. As a team, VSU has hit .334 with 85 home runs, 81 more doubles and scored 425 runs.

Senior Brianna Hancock has also been lights out in the circle most of the postseason as she has 198 strikeouts in 199 innings this year, and sophomore Caitlyn Calhoun threw the super regional clincher, taking a one-hitter into the final frame.

“We just mainly worry about ourselves,” Hancock said. “We know there’s going to be good teams there. But we’ve faced good teams all-year around. We don’t play an easy schedule. We’ve played hard teams, Tampa, Huntsville, North Al. I think that all has prepared us for what’s going to be there. I don’t think we’ll see anything there that should surprise us.”

Now the Blazers need to parlay that confidence into performance.

“You have to play well,” Macera said. “You get to the end and the best eight teams in the country, and there’s no time for mistakes and no time for being scared. You have to play well or go home.

“They’ve done what they needed to do to get there. Now they just have to perform at the show.”

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