The Valdosta Daily Times
Coming off a record fifth straight Gulf South Conference championship and having the ability to play at home this weekend, the Valdosta State softball team is flying high, feeling confident heading into this weekend’s South Sub-Region 1 Tournament at Steel’s Diamond at Blazer Park.
“We are coming off a conference championship that no one thought we could win,” senior Sarah Vaughn said. “I think everyone is up and everyone’s spirits are up. It will be hard to beat us twice.”
The Blazers will return home for their first home game since late April tonight, and they know the crowd will be one of the largest of the season, after playing in front of record crowds in 2010 and 2012 when they also hosted the regional and super regional tournaments.
“The community out here, the atmosphere is amazing,” said senior Morgan Johnson, who was a part of both the 2010 and 2012 teams that went on to play for the national championship.
“You can’t go play anywhere else and it be like this. We know the support we are going to have. It shows that people really care about what we are doing.”
The Blazers open the region tournament against Albany State tonight at 7 p.m., following the conclusion of the earlier game that pits St. Leo, the champion of the Sunshine State Conference, and Tampa, the No. 4 seed in the region.
VSU is a combined 4-0 against Albany State this season, outscoring the Golden Rams 45-3 in those games. Despite the dominance over the Golden Rams, the Blazers aren’t overlooking anyone, especially Albany State, which was to win the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament last weekend, securing the automatic bid.
“They hit a lot of home runs in the conference tournament; they hit a whole lot of home runs,” Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said. “If you leave it over the plate they can hit it and they hit a lot of them in the conference tournament. So you can’t look past them or you will be in the loser’s bracket Saturday. We have got to worry about Friday first.”
The Blazers are confident in their pitching this weekend, though. After a shaky start to the season, the growth of the pitching staff has come along, with freshman Hanna Lythberg turning into the game one starter and Brianna Hancock, who held Alabama-Huntsville to one hit in six innings in the GSC title game Sunday, as the game two starter in doubleheaders.
“They have both done real well and they both did real well at the conference tournament,” Macera said. “Bri pitched a one hitter after the first inning in the championship game. She gave up one hit in six innings to Huntsville, who is a hitting team like us. That is huge. If that doesn’t give her some confidence there, I don’t know what will....They are more mature at the end of the year and they have to stay confident in what they are doing.”
At the plate, the Blazers know what they can do. The roster features the two-time Gulf South Conference Player of the Year in Courtney Albritton and nine players that are hitting .300 or better this season, including Albritton who is hitting .414 with 17 home runs.
With a strong lineup like the Blazers’, the confidence is up heading into the weekend, like Vaughn said.
One thing is for certain this weekend. If the Blazers get behind in a game, they won’t be afraid of losing and they will still expect to come out victorious. That mindset kind of goes back to the whole confidence thing.
“We were down 3-0 in the first inning (to UAH in the GSC title game) but we always thought we were going to win,” Morgan Johnson said. “It is just what we expect and what we expect from out teammates.”
“That is what separates this team from a lot of other teams, where if we do go down we can come back,” Macera said. “Hopefully we just get timely hits when we need them. That is what happened against Huntsville, we got timely hits when we needed them.”
One of the players that delivered a timely hit was Vaughn, who has come up with a lot of timely hits in her four years with the Blazers.
More timely hits from Vaughn might be needed this postseason and she is aware of that.
“I’ve been there many times and everybody keeps asking me, but really it is just focus,” she said. “Even coach made a comment, ‘I can pull you off the bench and you will be even more clutch.’ But, I just don’t think the situation is any different. You have to be clutch, like you should know that you have to do it or you lose.”
The winners of today’s game will face off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, with the losers playing in an elimination game Saturday afternoon. The loser of the first game Saturday and the winner of Saturday’s second game will then play a final game, with the winner advancing to the Sub-Region championship, to face the only remaining undefeated team on Suday.
The championship will be Sunday at 1 p.m., with the “if necessary” game following later in the day.
The champion of the Sub-Region 1 Tournament in Valdosta will face the champion of the Sub-Region 2 Tournament, being held in Huntsville, Ala., in the Super Regional next weekend at the higher seeded team’s home stadium.
Valdosta State enters this week’s tournament with a 41-10 record. Tampa is 31-8 and St. Leo is 40-14. Albany State enters as the champion of the SIAC and earned an automatic bid into the tournament.
Tampa is carried by starting pitcher Kayla Cox, who might be the best pitcher in Valdosta this weekend. Cox carried a 23-4 record and a 0.45 earned run average in 185.1 innings pitched this season. She has 293 strikeouts, the sixth most in the nation, seven no-hitters and a school-record 16 shutouts this season.
“We have to have a plan and we have to stick with the game plan that we have put together,” Macera said. “If we stick by it, it will work.”
Alabama-Huntsville is serving as the host of the South Sub-Region 2 Tournament this weekend. The No. 2 seed in the region is hosting three seed North Alabama, six seed Barry and seven seed West Alabama.
All Valdosta State games this weekend will be carried live on Talk 92.1 FM.