Valdosta Daily Times

Local Sports

May 27, 2014

Edged at the finish

Blazers fall to Buffs in thriller for national title

For six innings, the two most potent offenses at the NCAA Division II national tournament were held completely in check Monday during the national championship game.

But the heavyweights finally started landing blows in the seventh innings at the Moyer Sports Complex in Salem, Va., where top-ranked West Texas A&M’s three-run home run outdid Valdosta State’s pair of solo blasts in a 3-2 win that gave the Buffs their first national title. The Blazers, eyeing their second national championship in three years, instead had to settle for a second runner-up finish in five years to go along with the 2012 title.

“They had one inning that they really put pressure on us and they capitalized,” VSU coach Thomas Macera said in the post-game press conference. “That’s how this game goes. Lots of times it comes down to an inning and they had a better inning than we had. They deserve it.”

West Texas A&M, which entered the tournament with the most runs and the most home runs in the eight-team field, opened its final inning with a double from Jessica Sipe, just the Buffs’ second hit of the game. VSU senior ace Brianna Hancock nearly worked around the leadoff hit, though, retiring two straight before Lacey Taylor worked for a walk on a full count. Brittany Gehle, the ninth-place hitter in the 60-7 Buffs’ lineup and without a hit during the tournament, then drove a 1-0 offering just over the left-field wall to put West Texas up 3-0.

“Brittany just came up with the big swing,” West Texas coach Kevin Blaskowski said. “When I saw that ball go over the fence, I couldn’t have been any happier for a kid. She’s had a tough week. That was her first hit of the weekend, and it was her biggest hit of the weekend.”

“I was just saving it all until the end,” Gehle added joking. “My big thing was I didn’t want to let the team down. All week I haven’t really contributed like I should have.”

The 48-15 Blazers, who also trailed by three runs in the seventh inning of Thursday’s tournament-opening game against Wayne State, did not go quietly, though. After Rita Hokianga, the tournament MVP, got Chelsea Canara and Fran Johnson to open the inning, Valdosta State fought back. Freshman catcher Morgan Butler, who hit her first home run in the Blazers’ South Super Regional series win at Alabama-Huntsville, unloaded a blast to dead center to give VSU life. Freshman designated player Heather Robinson, a Lowndes product with 11 home runs including one against Dixie State on Friday, followed with a shot down the left-field line to pull the Blazers within one.

“We’re not going to quit,” said Johnson, who had the game-tying and game-winning hits against Wayne State in that opener. “It doesn’t matter if we have two outs in the seventh inning, we’re not going to quit. Those were our freshmen and they came up big. What more can we ask for? We’re not going to back down. That’s what we’re known for.”

But VSU, which battled adversity and rough patches throughout the season, didn’t have one final comeback in it as Hokianga struck out April Collins to end it.

While it took all seven innings for somebody to score, it took nearly as long for both offenses to even register hits against Hancock and Hokianga.

VSU, which had the best average throughout the tournament and entered with the second-most runs and home runs, didn’t get a baserunner until the fifth when Hannah Strickland led off with an infield single. Johnson, an all-tournament member, drew a one-out walk to put two Blazers on, but VSU was unable to scratch across the first run.

“That was the best opportunity we got and we needed a timely hit and I think that’s what this game is about, timely hits,” Macera said. “I mean the kid that hit the home run against us was their No. 9 hitter. She had a timely hit and we didn’t. They got the timely hit with two outs and we didn’t. That’s how this game is. We’d rather have timely hits than hits and we just didn’t have them this game.”

The Blazers also stranded two in the sixth when Shelby Altman, also an all-tournament performer as well as a second-team All-American, doubled with two outs and Kiley Rusen followed by walking. Hokianga finished allowing four hits and two walks to go along with eight strikeouts.

“Their kid did a good job of keeping us off-balance and they’re just a really good team,” Macera said.

Said Hokianga, who won all four games in the tournament for the Buffs: “I just knew that I had to keep pushing for my team. Every time we have our backs pushed against the wall, something magical happens.”

West Texas couldn’t solve Hancock either. While the all-tournament pitcher walked hitters in the first, second and fifth innings, the Buffs didn’t register a hit until Renee Erwin singled to left-center with two outs in the sixth as Hancock allowed just three hits and four walks along with eight strikeouts.

“I saw that they had trouble with the inside and the rise, so I tried to work that the best and keep them guessing,” Hancock said. “I’d go inside and then outside and keep them guessing. I tried to work wide and work ahead as much as I possibly could do. And just tried to stay calm in the pressure situations.”

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