VALDOSTA –– The Valdosta State Blazers (38-9) punched their ticket to the NCAA Division II World Series with a 6-4 win over West Florida (33-16) Saturday evening.
"It's been a long, exhausting week," VSU softball coach Thomas Macera said. "They earned it. These girls played their guts out. It's hard...it's really hard to come out of a loser's bracket in terms like this because all the other teams here are top teams. You're always gonna see somebody's No. 1 pitcher, the stress level is higher, the stakes are higher, so you just try to keep that in perspective.
"We came up with the hits we needed. We came up with some unbelievable plays –– my gosh, we kicked one and threw the kid out at home plate, that don't happen very often. Usually, the snowball just gets bigger. These girls played their guts out."
With the game tied at 2 in the top of the third with two on and two outs, the Blazers got a lift from a familiar face –– designated player Taylor Macera.
Taylor stepped up and smashed a three-run home run to left center to thrust the Blazers ahead 5-2.
On the very next at-bat, catcher Lacey Crandall fouled off six of the first seven pitches she saw before launching the ball out of Steel's Diamond to left field to open up a 6-2 lead.
The back-to-back jacks tilted a game that hung in the balance decidedly in the Blazers' favor.
Taylor Macera's homer was especially sweet for her father, who could hardly contain himself with emotion as she rounded third base heading home.
Taylor, who suffers from celiac disease; a serious autoimmune disorder occurring in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.
"Nobody knows her real story, how sick she's been," Macera said of Taylor. "When she was 14, they told her she'd never play again. She's still going through a lot. A lot of people don't even know what it takes for that child to get out of bed in the morning. She puts a smile on her face every day out here. She plays her guts out. She just battles and battles and that's the one thing about her –– she never goes up to an at-bat going 'Oh gosh,' she just doesn't. Even in that at-bat there, we put a play on that didn't work and it didn't faze her one bit. She got in there and they threw in and up at her and she just crushed it.
"For me, it's so emotional because I know how much that child has been through. They say you need to walk in somebody's shoes to understand. You just don't even know what it takes for that child to come to the ball field. I'm just so proud of her. Watch her cheer for the rest of her teammates. She's the first one out of the dugout in between every freaking inning. She does so much more than just swing the bat. When somebody's down, she's the first one to go try to pick somebody up. She's just a very special young lady and I'm just privileged that she's my daughter."
Though the Argos responded with a two-run RBI single by Jacquelynne Poling in the bottom of the third. the Blazers' defense didn't allow another run the rest of the way.
Having pitched every inning prior to Saturday's elimination game, VSU pitcher Samantha Richards finally got a small breather after picking up her 26th win of the season earlier in the day. Avery Lamb got the ball to start the critical second game and lasted 2 1/3 innings, giving up five hits and four earned runs before Richards was summoned from the bullpen to right the ship.
Richards pitched 4 2/3 innings and gave up three hits with no runs and two strikeouts for her 27th win of the season.
For the tournament, Richards pitched 31 2/3 innings with three complete games.
"Physically, I will be feeling it tomorrow for a fact," Richards said, nodding her head for emphasis. "Most of the time, I had my adrenaline to help me out with the physical aspect of it. Mentally, I had my teammates behind. I had Coach supporting me. Nikki (Pennington) is constantly coming up saying, 'Hey, I've got your back.' I've got Kiley (Robb) at second, (Aniston) Gano, and then Lacey behind the plate being as loud as possible saying, 'You've got this. Best pitch right here!'"
Richards also got the benefit of hitting and run support during her time in the circle. The Blazers entered the South Region Tournament with 95 home runs on the season and wrapped up the South Region Championship by adding 10 more homers in five games.
Coming into Saturday, the Blazers needed to beat the Argos twice to win the South Region, while the Argos just needed to win once after beating the Blazers 4-0 in Friday's semifinal.
The Blazers ensured that they would live to fight another game with a 4-2 win in the Saturday's opener.
An unearned run on an error by Crandall allowed the Argos' Mika Garcia to score to open up a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning.
As the Blazers have done all season long, they used their power as an equalizer.
In the bottom of the first, Morgan Hill homered to left center to knot the game at 1.
The Argos took the lead in the top of the third inning on an RBI single by Poling that brought in Teala Howard for a 2-1 advantage.
Down a run and the threat of elimination whispering at the nape of their necks, the Blazers looked to their star to come through.
Nicole Pennington came to the plate with two on and one out, looking to spark the Blazers. Facing Argos pitcher Kelsey Sweatt, who shut out the Blazers on Friday to hand them their first loss of the tournament, Pennington battled Sweatt to a 15-pitch at-bat. With each ball fouling off her bat, the crowd at Steel's Diamond swelled with anticipation. The crowd nearly exploded as Pennington had a would-be home run careen just wide of the foul pole in left field.
Finally on the 15th pitch, Pennington delivered an RBI triple to right center field –– bringing in Hunter Meadows and Baylee Everson to put VSU ahead 3-2.
"I was just taking every pitch one at a time," Pennington said. "I had a long at-bat against Kelsey Sweatt yesterday so I was pretty much thinking, 'Is she gonna throw the same sequence? Is she gonna throw the same sequence?' And eventually, she did. She threw a curve ball that I was just waiting to sit on. To have all those people behind me is absolutely insane and I don't think I've ever wanted to play for anybody else other than the people around me."
After the game, Pennington said she was inspired by a quote from Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr. after the first walk-off home run of his career Wednesday against the New York Mets.
"I got a quote sent to me before the game (Friday)," Pennington explained. "Acuna said it just the other day. He said, 'In all of these situations, where the pressure is on, I want to be in that situation.' That's what I told myself in that situation is I want this at-bat, I want this pitch and I want to do this for my team."
The Blazers quickly built more of a cushion as Logan Hill hit a sac fly RBI to deep left to score pinch runner Kayla Tosone to push the margin to 4-2.
With the sophomore Richards still in the circle in the top of the seventh, the Blazers had done enough for their ace to slam the door shut.
Richards got Howard to ground out, then got Garcia to fly out to third. Poling came up and did her best to keep the Argos alive, fending off Richards for 10 pitches before drawing a walk.
Ally Merrill came up to capitalize on the walk, but popped up to Kiley Robb at second base to end the game –– sending all 360 fans in attendance into an uproar.
"Like Coach Macera said a couple of days ago, it was all about our fans," Richards said. "They have our backs. I know my team has my back, so I just try to have theirs. In my mind, it was just play for the seniors and play your heart out and leave it all on the field and that was my thought process for today. It turned out well for us."
HOW THEY GOT HERE
The Blazers earned a bye for the first round of the NCAA South Region Tournament. On Thursday, the Blazers defeated Alabama-Huntsville 8-0 in six innings. Friday, the Blazers lost to West Florida 4-0 –– putting themselves in the loser's bracket. However, in the nightcap, the Blazers knocked off the Rollins Tars 5-2 to set up Saturday's two-game series with the Argos.
THE AIR UP THERE
Having set a new single-season team and Gulf South Conference record with 105 home runs, the Blazers will now move to the Mile High city in Denver, Colo., for the NCAA Division II World Series.
When asked if the high altitude could play into the hands of his team, Macera downplayed the significance but said he believes his team has what it takes to win it all.
"We've just got to stay focused," Macera said of playing in the Denver altitude. "We've got to play V-State ball. We can't over-swing. All you've got to do is hit the ball hard and we have a hitter's chance. We've got to keep it in perspective –– we can eat this up right now, but by Wednesday, we can calm things down.
"You just play one game at a time. They're good enough to win it. They're good enough to really get there and compete. I'm just excited about that and just excited that they have an opportunity to do this."
Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.