The Valdosta Daily Times
For the third time in four years, and second in a row, Valdosta State’s softball team will play in the national championship tournament.
The Blazers won their third South Region championship Saturday, beating Alabama-Huntsville 8-3 in game three of the best-of-three series at Steel’s Diamond at Blazer Park.
“It is a testament to the girls and how they work in practice,” Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said. “This is a whole different squad from last year, so this isn’t just the same team over and over. These girls come in here, they never played together, the team chemistry worked very well together and we worked through some things in February and they’ve grown. That is the thing, if you can grow every week you will have something.”
The Blazers started Saturday with a 5-4 loss to UAH, setting up a winner-take-all game three, which featured Valdosta State dominate the Chargers to earn the win.
Valdosta State will open the national tournament in Salem, Va. Thursday with a game against Molloy, the champion of the East Super Regional, at 2:30 p.m. Eastern.
“We got to start working (Sunday),” Macera said. “You are here to win a national championship. That is all you’ve cared about and that is all we’ve worked for. That is what you play for. If you don’t win the last game of the year, what did you win?”
On Saturday, the Blazers won the South Region championship, being led by a dominating performance at the plate from sophomore — and two-time Gulf South Conference Player of the Year — Courtney Albritton.
Albritton hit two home runs in the Blazers’ 5-4 loss to UAH, driving in three runs, before she following up with a three-run double in a massive five-run second inning in the series finale, carrying the Blazers into the lead and past their respected rival.
“I knew they were going to pitch me inside,” Albritton said. “So this week I worked inside — on the tees, Marti (Littlefield) helped me. So they didn’t change anything.”
Unlike last year, when the Blazers were the heavy favorite to win the championship, nobody had them picked to return and defend their championship. Now, they are four wins away from becoming the first team since 1998 to win back-to-back national championships.
“Nobody thought we could do it, so it is good to know we are going to be there,” Albritton said. “Coach (Lindsay) Campana brought in a sheet, from the poll online from NCAA.com, and it said 20 percent that we were going to make it, and probably 15 percent of it was the team voting. Nobody thought we could do it.”
Added Macera: “It is not an easy thing to do, but these girls can do it. They just have to go and fight.”
In the series finale, the Blazers scored all eight of their runs with two outs, including five in the second inning.
After Kiley Rusen and Sarah Vaughn each had one-out singles, and after Hannah Strickland connected on a single with two outs, Albritton cleared the bases with her double to left field, making the score 3-0.
“I think there were more people here in the first game than the second game, so that made me really mad,” Albritton said. “They lost hope and left.”
With Albritton at second, Morgan Johnson walked, before Shelby Altman walked after a 14-pitch at-bat, loading the bases for the Blazers. Then, Ashley Steinhilber and Angela O’Connor each brought in runs with bases loaded walks.
The Blazers continued to pile it on in the fifth inning when Fran Johnson singled and scored on an error by UAH’s shortstop.
Then, in the seventh inning, the Blazers added a pair of insurance runs when Morgan Johnson singled and scored on a double from Steinhilber, who scored on a single from O’Connor.
VSU chased UAH starting pitcher Kimberly Jack, the GSC Freshman and Pitcher of the Year, after two innings and reliever Whitney Toler after facing just two batters. Whitney Gilbert pitched the final five innings for UAH.
In the circle for Valdosta State in the series finale was freshman Hanna Lythberg. The right-hander allowed three runs on seven hits with four walks, allowed two of the runs in the seventh inning with two outs.
The final out of the game was one that alluded the Blazers for several minutes. But, once the out was made, the feeling of relief was the same.
“It was a relief,” Macera said. “Huntsville is Huntsville. They can score it just as easily as we did. So the game was over until the last out was made.”
The Chargers’ other run came in the sixth inning, on a 1-out single from Kathryn Whitlock.
Besides the runs, Lythberg was able to get out of jams during the game, using her defense to back her up, including in the second inning when center fielder Sarah Vaughn gunned down a runner at home plate denying the Chargers of an early run opportunity.
In Saturday’s early game, Alabama-Huntsville used an RBI single from Mallory McNeal in the bottom of the seventh inning to win 5-4, scoring a pair of unanswered runs to come from behind against VSU.
After falling into a 2-0 deficit in the first inning, the Blazers responded in the third inning with a solo home run from Albritton, her first of the day. Then, UAH scored another run in the bottom of the third inning, making the score 3-1.
O’Connor hit her second home run in as many days in the top of the fourth inning, to cut the Blazers within one run.
Then, in the fifth inning, Albritton hit a home run to left field to put the Blazers ahead 4-3.
“Bomb, bomb, bomb baby, they hit well,” Macera said of the homers. “They have heart. (O’Connor) coming off the bench, she did great.”
Albritton finished game one with the pair of homers, two runs scored and three runs batted in.
VSU then held on to the lead, getting as close as five outs from the win, before the Chargers scored one run in the sixth inning and another in the seventh to rally for the 5-4 win, forcing a decisive game three.
In game one, Brianna Hancock allowed five earned runs on nine hits, including four walks, to take her first loss of the postseason.