The Valdosta Daily Times
Valdosta State’s softball team is one win away. One more win and the Blazers will be heading back to the NCAA South Super Regional for the third time in the last four years.
The Blazers will look to get that final win in the South Region 1 Tournament today at 1 p.m., when they face Tampa in the championship game at Steel’s Diamond at Blazer Park.
Valdosta State needs just one win to advance, while the Spartans need a sweep of the Blazers in a doubleheader.
VSU hasn’t been swept in a doubleheader at home since April 2011, some 24 1/2 months ago.
“It is tough to beat anybody; Any good team is tough to beat twice,” Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said. “But it can be done. I’ve seen it done. We got swept on the road to North Alabama this year. So we can’t just sit here and say, ‘Oh it isn’t going to happen.’ We have to come out and play like we did (Saturday). That is the thing about these girls, no matter the score and no matter the inning, we don’t quit.”
The Blazers surely didn’t quit Saturday.
For eight innings, Tampa’s Kayla Cox was impressive, striking out every Blazer batter in the starting lineup at least once.
Then, with the score tied in the top of the ninth inning, the Blazers found some timely hits that had been lacking all day.
Junior Shelby Altman and sophomore Fran Johnson hit a pair of two-run home runs over the left field fence off Cox, the South Region Pitcher of the Year, lifting the Blazers to the 5-3 win.
“This game is all about timely hits, you just have to get them when you can and we were blessed to have runners on base when we got those hits,” Macera said.
Cox was as dominate as they come early, recording a total of 19 strikeouts on the afternoon. She limited the Blazers to just a pair of Courtney Albritton singles through the first eight innings of the game. Then, Altman and Johnson homered and the game changed.
“Cox, in my opinion, is one of the best pitchers in the South, if not the best and Division II, and she showed why I give her that much credit,” Macera said. “We are a very good hitting team and she put it on us.
“We just kept telling them that we had to leave the up pitch up and we have to look sooner in the count low. We started taking that pitch and it forced her to throw a few more pitches and it gave us the opportunity to hit something.”
After being confused and struck out the majority of the game, the Blazers stayed patient, knowing the tall right-hander from Tampa would eventually wear down in the extra innings and would make a mistake.
“(Coach Macera) told us that all game: Just wait, she is going to flatten out,” Altman said. “He said, ‘Lay off the high ones and wait for that flatten out. She is going to give you something.’”
With senior Morgan Johnson leading the ninth inning off with a walk, Altman homered two pitches later after a failed bunt attempt to start her at-bat.
“My mentality changed in every at-bat. I never went down the same way,” Altman said. “I went up there with a different approach and I listened to Coach and on that at-bat, I had come in to bunt. I don’t know if (Cox) was wanting her defense to get that out, but she just left it over the plate and I took advantage of her mistake.”
After Ashley Steinhilber struck out and Kiley Rusen walked, Fran Johnson got into the act, hitting a home run to nearly the exact same spot as Altman, pushing the Blazers ahead 5-1.
“Every at-bat I try to do something different because she is an incredible pitcher, she really is,” Johnson said. “Coach told me to look early, so first pitch I was ready. She left me one.”
With four runs to play with in the bottom half of the inning, VSU’s Brianna Hancock, the winning pitcher Friday against Albany State, allowed two solo home runs to the Spartans, but used her tough and rugged defense to make the final outs and preserve VSU’s win.
Hancock, who entered the game in the fourth inning, earned the win on consecutive days, allowing two runs on three hits while striking out four.
“She did the same thing she did a week ago against Huntsville in the conference tournament,” Macera. “She was phenomenal. I think we got a little too loose there at the end and we gave up a few flat pitches. It is going to happen. But, at the end of the day, we got more runs than they got.”
Tampa took a 1-0 lead in the third inning on a deep single to left field that sailed over the head of Morgan Johnson, scoring Meagan Burke from second base.
The Spartans held on to the lead behind Cox’s dominating pitching until the fifth inning when Brittany Britt pinch-ran for Rusen at first and scored on a single from Albritton, who tallied both of VSU’s hits prior to the ninth inning.
Third baseman Hannah Strickland was tagged out at home plate to end the fifth inning, costing the Blazers the chance to add to the scoreboard.
While it was the offensive fireworks in the ninth inning and VSU’s pitching that helped slow down Tampa, Macera said he was pleased with his team’s defensive effort, especially in the infield.
Multiple times Saturday the VSU infield made tough, off-balanced throws to record outs that ended innings.
“We haven’t been playing great defense all year,” Macera said. “We have been playing better the last month. Remember, I have two outfielders playing infield. Those two in the middle (Altman and Albritton) were playing outfield. They have stepped up and they have done a wonderful job lately.”