Valdosta Daily Times

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May 23, 2014

Blazers catch fire

VSU rallies past Wayne State in opener

VALDOSTA — Held in check for six innings, the Valdosta State Blazers caught fire just in time Thursday evening.

Limited to just two runs by Wayne State ace Lyndsay Butler in their NCAA Division II national tournament opener, the Blazers rallied in the seventh and then won it two innings later 8-5 on a pair of huge Fran Johnson hits to advance into the winner’s bracket. VSU (46-14) will face Dixie State at 6:30 p.m. today. The Red Storm beat the Savage Storm 3-2 in Thursday's late game.

Valdosta State, which won the 2012 national title, had lost its tournament opener each of the past two years. But the Blazers never lost faith that the streak wouldn’t reach three.

“Our team has so much heart, and we believe in each other so much,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just my hit, you know, we had to have people on. This isn’t just a one-person game.”

Shut down by Butler up until that last chance, second-team All-American Shelby Altman singled with one out to start the seventh-inning rally. Kiley Rusen, also without a hit up to that point, followed with a single as well and the Blazers were in business. Hannah Strickland pulled VSU within 5-3 with a single through the right side and the Blazers inched within one when Chelsea Canara reached on an error. Then stepped in Johnson, one of the four Blazers playing in her third national championship tournament. She promptly lined a single over Butler’s head into center field to tie it.

Given new life, the Blazers knew what to do with it. Caitlyn Calhoun, who relieved starter Brianna Hancock in the fourth, retired the 46-11 Warriors in order in the bottom of the seventh and then allowed just lone singles in the eighth and the ninth. Calhoun allowed six hits in 5 1-3 innings of relief, giving up a pair of unearned runs in the sixth when the Warriors pushed their lead from 3-2 to a three-run advantage.

“Cat pitched amazing after she came in, and we just fight,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re known for.”

But with Calhoun silencing the Warriors in extra innings, the VSU offense picked back up. Rusen and Strickland opened the ninth with back-to-back singles and Canara, who homered to lead off the second to tie the game at 1 and then scored to tie at 2 in the fourth, then bunted to move them over. Johnson, who had three of the Blazers’ 15 hits, then unloaded on a monster home run to left field to give VSU its first lead of the game.

“The more you see a pitcher, the better you feel,” Johnson said, adding that the pitch was a riser from Butler that hung up. “The more pitches I see, the better I tend to hit, and I felt like I started to see her rise ball better as the game went on.”

Wayne State, which will play in an elimination game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, scored on a two-out single from Emily Bryce in the first and then answered Canara’s home run with a leadoff home run from Jade McGarr in the bottom half of the second. It was McGarr’s second of the year and just Wayne State’s 13th.

Then after VSU again knotted the score in the fourth, the Warriors immediately answered when Butler’s two-out single plated Emily Cava and chased Hancock, who allowed eight hits in 3 2-3 innings, while escaping trouble during most of that. Four of Wayne State’s five runs came with two outs, including the two unearned runs in the sixth.

Butler, the Wayne State ace that entered the tournament with a 0.86 ERA after allowing just 25 earned runs in 204 1-3 innings, went the distance for the Warriors. But the Blazers tagged her for eight earned runs on their 15 hits. Butler did strike out eight batters, giving her 300 for the year.

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