The Valdosta Daily Times
Kiley Rusen picked a good time to have a career breakout day for the Valdosta State softball team. Slugging her first-career home run and triple, while driving in six runs, Rusen led the charge as the Blazers routed Tampa 12-6 to advance to a second straight NCAA South Super Regional Tournament.
“It felt good to get that over with,” Rusen said. “It was nice to meet my team at home plate. I have always wanted to do that and I just did it for my team.”
The Blazers will host rival Alabama-Huntsville this weekend at Steel’s Diamond at Blazer Park in a best-of-three series, starting with a single game Friday night. The Blazers are 2-2 against the Lady Chargers this season, which includes a win in the Gulf South Conference championship game earlier this month.
“It has been us and them all this time,” Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said. “It just shows how good their program is and how good ours is and how stable they both are and how consistent everybody is.”
This weekend will mark Valdosta State’s fourth appearance in the Super Regional in the last five seasons. While the roster has changed, the goal has remained the same for the Blazers, who won the Super Regional in 2010 and 2012.
“We expect to win,” second baseman Courtney Albritton said. “Just like we did last year. We have a lot of people stepping up again, so we have a good chance.”
Rusen’s career day started early and continued throughout Sunday, while other players got into the act. VSU was able to take advantage of an injury to Tampa star pitcher Kayla Cox, who recorded 19 strikeouts against the Blazers on Saturday, but the left Sunday’s game after two innings.
Valdosta State pounded out nine hits as a team, three of which came from Rusen, while taking advantage of four Spartan errors and 10 issued walks. The Blazers scored two runs in the second inning, two in the third, one in the fourth, two in the sixth and five runs in the top of the seventh inning.
Rusen started the action with a two-run home run to right centerfield, her first career home run as a Valdosta State Blazer. The Blazers led 2-0.
The career day continued in the sixth, when Rusen, who is not known for her speed, recorded her firs-career triple, scoring catcher Ashley Steinhilber and centerfielder Sarah Vaughn. Then in the seventh inning, in the midst of the Blazers’ five-run inning, Rusen singled into right field, scoring Shelby Altman and Steinhilber, pushing the Blazers out ahead 12-3.
Following Rusen’s homer in the second inning, the Blazers quickly came back in the third inning. After Cox was pulled from the game due to a blood blister on her throwing hand — she confirmed to the Valdosta Daily Times following the game — the Blazers added two runs to their lead, going ahead 4-0.
Albritton reached base on a walk, Morgan Johnson was hit by a pitch and Steinhilber singled.
Then, Tampa relief pitcher Julia Morrow issued a pair of bases-loaded walks to Vaughn and Fran Johnson.
“We told them, that No. 2 (Morrow) isn’t a bad pitcher,” Macera said. “She beat Rollins, Saint Leo and other good teams down there. She is a different pitcher; she doesn’t throw hard. She throws curve and rise and they made her throw down and it just played into us. It is murderous row here. All these kids can hit. There is a lot of pressure on that kid and it showed because she started walking some kids.”
After Tampa closed within one run behind a three-run third inning, the Blazers used an inside-the-park home run from designated player Lindsay Hamlin in the top of the fourth inning.
Hamlin’s hit into shallow right field bounced past Tampa’s Katlyn Rattz and rolled into the corner, allowing her to round the bases for the home run.
VSU’s lead remained 5-3 until the sixth inning, when Rusen connected on her triple to the corner.
Then, in the seventh inning, the Blazers batted through the lineup, taking advantage of one Tampa error and three walks to score five runs.
Angela O’Connor pinch-ran for Hamlin and scored on a single from Altman, who scored on Rusen’s single. Morgan Johnson walked in the inning and scored on another RBI walk by Vaughn, who scored on a RBI single from Hanna Strickland later in the inning.
“These girls pick each other up,” Macera said. “We can’t ride Albritton every single day, going 4-for-4 and hitting four home runs. Unfortunately, she is human, at times. But that is the thing, we got hits out of our 8-9 hitters today. That is huge when they can get on.”
Valdosta State pitcher Brianna Hancock earned the win in the circle for the Blazers, her third of the weekend. Hancock allowed three runs — all in the bottom of the seventh inning, cutting VSU’s lead from 12-3 to 12-6 — on eight hits in 4 2/3 innings. Hancock struck out four and didn’t walk a batter.
NOTES: The announced attendance Sunday was 604, making VSU’s three-day attendance over 1,600. The entire tournament attendance was over 2,400....Friday’s game time has yet to be determined, along with the start time for game two Saturday...VSU and UAH last met in a Super Regional in 2009. The Lady Chargers swept the Blazers in two games....Either VSU or UAH has appeared in every national championship game since 2009, with VSU being the only team from the GSC to win the title game.
CORRECTION: Valdosta State and Alabama-Huntsville have played four times this season. The Blazers are 2-2 against the Lady Chargers this season. A previous version of this article stated the Blazers were 4-3 against UAH this season.