The Valdosta Daily Times
SOUTHAVEN, Miss. —
Valdosta State’s softball team claimed a record fifth straight Gulf South Conference tournament championship Sunday evening, erasing a 3-run deficit to beat arch-rival Alabama-Huntsville 4-3 in the championship game in Southaven, Miss.
The Blazers (41-10) became the first school in GSC-history to win five straight championships, a half-decade of dominance throughout the double-elimination tournament.
“It is a testament to how hard these girls work in practice and games,” Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said.
“They never give up. Five straight conference championships has never been done and everyone knows the Gulf South Conference is the best conference in the country. For years it has been Alabama-Huntsville being so dominant, and everyone knows what they have done. But now, it is Valdosta State’s time.”
With the win, Valdosta State will host the South Regional Tournament this weekend at Steel’s Diamond at Blazer Park.
The tournament, which will feature half of the eight teams in the South Region, will begin Friday evening and continue through Sunday.
VSU hosted the regional tournament last year, advancing to the Super Regional and eventually the national championship tournament, which they won with a 4-1 win over UC-San Diego, claiming the school’s first-ever national championship.
“It is extremely critical to get to the end,” said Macera, of home-field advantage in the postseason. “If you go back the last couple years and look for a team has has advanced without hosting a regional, there aren’t many. It is critical to host to move on.”
Sunday started with a loss for the Blazers. They lost their first game of the day against the Lady Chargers 4-1. In the final game, though, the Blazers continued to fight and find a way to win.
After Alabama-Huntsville raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning, taking advantage of wild and inconsistent pitching from junior Brianna Hancock, the Blazers fought back with a runs in the second and third innings, respectively.
Then, trailing 3-2 heading into the top of the seventh inning and with the top of the order coming to bat, the Blazers turned in a come-from-behind performance to claim their record championship.
With one out in the inning, Courtney Albritton, the Gulf South Conference Player of the Year, singled off the Gulf South Conference Pitcher of the Year, Kimberly Jack. Then, Morgan Johnson and Shelby Altman each singled, loading the bases for senior Ashley Steinhilber, who hit a home run in the second inning to account for the Blazers first run of the championship game.
Steinhilber delivered a single into left field, scoring Albritton and tying the game at 3-3.
Then, senior Sarah Vaughn, who nicknamed “Ms. Clutch” by her teammates because of her ability to find a hit in a pivotal situation — like in last year’s national tournament when she delivered a game-tying hit when the Blazers were down to their final out in an elimination game — hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield.
Johnson scored from third base, giving the Blazers their first lead of the game.
“That is one thing we do, we never give up,” Macera said. “Our motto is it takes 7 innings to win a ball game. They scored three runs in the first and we kept chipping away at it and fighting. We had some other chances throughout the game, if we just would have gotten a clutch hit here or there, we would have scored more runs. They will not lay down, bottom line. These girls understand, you win in seven innings.”
In the bottom of the seventh inning, with the temperatures continuing to fall and the sun setting, the Blazers retired the Chargers in 1-2-3 fashion.
NOTES: In his eighth seasons as the Blazers’ head coach, Thomas Macera has won at least 40 games in every season.
The Blazers have won 41 so far this season. Macera is the winningest coach in school-history....Courtney Albritton, pitcher Hannah Lythberg and catcher Ashley Steinhilber were all named to the All-GSC Tournament Team, announced following the championship game.