The Yellow Jackets completed a sweep of the elimination bracket in the NCAA Division II Atlantic 2 Region on Friday, getting a 1-0 win over Gannon and an 8-0 revenge win over Winston-Salem State to advance to Saturday's championship round. WVSU was slated to face West Chester at noon at Lady Jacket Field in Institute.
The advance into the championship round marks the furthest the WVSU program has ever advanced in NCAA play.
"It's a very emotional time for me. I played here and that was one of the things we always strived for but we never reached," second-year Yellow Jackets coach Mattie Best said of the milestone. "It's a lot of relief, and it was the end-goal, the big goal I had in mind at the beginning of the year.
"I'm very proud of this group for accomplishing it," Best said.
Of course, accomplishing a goal doesn't mean Best and the Yellow Jackets (34-15) have any desire to take their collective foot off the gas. Beginning with Emilee Walker's six shutout innings to finish State's 3-0 loss to Winston-Salem State, Yellow Jacket pitchers have thrown 18 consecutive shutout innings.
Freshman Kasey Murphy threw a three-hit shutout in the team's second win on Friday, with every out recorded by either strikeout or by her infielders. Nine of the Rams' 15 outs were ground outs.
"I did well with hitting my spots, and basically they were just hitting them to our players and they got them out," said the freshman.
The tournament began with State giving up three runs in the Rams' first at-bat on Thursday. The scenario completely flipped in the team's elimination game.
After Murphy got a pair of strikeouts as part of a 1-2-3 top of the first, it was the Yellow Jackets' turn to capitalize on first-inning jitters. Winston-Salem sophomore pitcher Tia Robinson walked State senior shortstop Kayleigh Thompson to start the inning, and the situation quickly deteriorated from there.
State senior Brookelyn Hale reached on an error with Thompson taking third and then scoring when an attempt to throw her out bounced into left field. Emma Ruth was then hit by a pitch and Brittany Allison drew a one-out walk after Hale was gunned down trying to score on a double steal.
That set the stage for junior Paige Scruggs - named to the All-Atlantic Region second team earlier Friday - who smacked a two-run double off the top of the left-center field fence.
It was State's only hit of the inning, but thanks to four Winston-Salem errors and a pair of stolen bases, the Yellow Jackets staked themselves to a 5-0 lead.
"We came together when we needed to, and we got runs when we needed to, as we didn't yesterday," said Scruggs, who is 4 for 8 in the tournament.
State tacked on a pair of runs in the second as Winston-Salem State (33-13) committed yet another error and Ruth got an RBI single. Hale and Allison each hit doubles in the fourth to account for State's final run.
Winston-Salem State coach LaTaya Hillard-Gray said once her team lost 12-4 in Friday's opening game against West Chester (36-19), it was scrambling for answers it simply couldn't find.
"When you find yourself in the losers bracket you ask yourself, 'What do I need to do to adjust?' I think nerves played a part. Our first baseman's a freshman and our shortstop's a redshirt freshman. It came out today," Hillard-Gray said.
After catching the first 13 innings of the scoreless streak, Allison said she believes the momentum gained by the team's pitching and hitting working together in unison will carry over into Saturday.
"It takes a lot of stress and a lot of worry off of what we've had going on through this tournament," Allison said. "I think us coming up last game at the end and then coming through and staying hot all the way through this game, I think that will keep us hungry."
State and Gannon (30-16) were scoreless into the bottom of the sixth on Friday, when Thompson laid down a bunt that immediately stopped dead in the dirt, allowing her to reach base with a one-out single. Hale followed with a triple to the right-center field fence that allowed Thompson to score, giving pitcher Emily Moore all the offense she needed.
Moore got the Golden Knights in order in the seventh to seal the win and a three-hit shutout.
n As is often the case, the pitching matchup that began the NCAA Division II Atlantic II Region softball tournament on Thursday came down to a question of which team better handled its pressure inning.Winston-Salem State got its first NCAA tournament win in school history at Lady Jacket Field in Institute, using a two-run double by junior Shauntaja Dedecker in the top of the first off West Virginia State freshman starter Emilee Walker, a Man High School graduate, to help the Rams to a 3-0 victory.
The Rams (33-11) got all three of their runs in the first inning. Walker retired the Rams in order in five of the last six innings and faced the minimum after the first, allowing just a fifth-inning single to Kortney Thomas after the shaky start.
"In the first inning, I don't there was anything that [Walker] did. I just think it was the energy of our team that capitalized on her," said Dedecker, who leads the Rams with 10 home runs this season.
"We capitalized when we had our chances to. We were taking our hands to the ball and hitting the ball where we needed to."
Walker acknowledged that nerves got the best of her in throwing the first inning of an NCAA regional to be played at WVSU in school history. The Yellow Jackets are the No. 2 seed overall in the Atlantic Region.
"I was just trying to do my best and make my pitches, but I guess I was too nervous and was kind of freaking out a little bit," Walker said. "After the first inning I kind of got into game mode and thought, 'They've already scored so there's really not any pressure.'"
When it came time for Winston-Salem junior pitcher Erica Davis to face the music in the bottom of the seventh, she escaped without giving up a run when the Rams turned their third double play of the game to seal the win.
State senior catcher Brittany Allison reached base with a one-out walk, and sophomore Paige Scruggs followed with a single to left field. State coach Mattie Best then substituted freshman Kasey Murphy into the lineup to pinch-hit for Madison Rafuson.
Murphy lined out to Rams third baseman Alleigh Himes, who caught Allison too far off second and doubled her up to end the game.
"We haven't had that many double plays in one game all season," Rams coach LaTaya Hillard-Gray said.
It was a rare development for the Yellow Jackets, too, who had grounded into double plays just twice all season entering the tournament.
"That was really critical," Best said. "When you're setting up double plays, that's a big momentum changer. Unfortunately, we didn't have the opportunity to change it and they kept the momentum."
Davis improved to 15-7 on the season, had one strikeout and recorded nine of her first 15 outs via fly balls. Walker struck out seven but fell to 7-2 on the year.
"We can produce what we call 'easy outs' if we use our mechanics and make sure the ball moves and produces based on that pitch," Hillard-Gray said. "We're competing against that yellow ball. We're not competing against the other team, we're competing against that yellow ball."
Dedecker went 2 for 3 and had the game's only extra-base hit. Scruggs went 2 for 3 for State in the loss.
The loss drops West Virginia State (33-15) into the losers bracket, where it was slated to face Gannon (30-15) in an elimination game on Friday.
n Also on the West Virginia State roster are three more Logan County players in Chapmanville's Shain Meeks, backup Kerston Kennedy and injured freshman pitcher Kenzie McCann.