The West Liberty University softball team’s first-ever NCAA Tournament game proved every bit as frustrating as it was memorable here Thursday afternoon.
Coach Herb Minch’s No. 1-seeded Hilltoppers (36-18) battled 2-time national champion Lock Haven (32-17) for more than four hours before coming out on the short end of a 7-2 score in a nail-biting 15-inning marathon.
Shepherd hammered its way to a 10-2 mercy rule win against Concord in the second game of the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region I Tournament at the WLU Softball Complex.
The Bald Eagles (32-17) and the Rams (39-16) meet in Friday’s 11 a.m. opener before West Liberty (36-18) takes on the Mountain Lions (38-20) in an elimination game at 1:30 p.m. The Shepherd/Lock Haven loser returns to the field at 4 p.m. for the final elimination game against the WLU/Concord survivor.
“We shot ourselves in the foot a little bit at the end but I’m really proud of the way my girls competed today,” Minch said.
“Give Lock Haven credit. Their pitcher showed why she was the pitcher of the year in the region but we had our chances. It was a great game between two very good teams but now we have to put that behind us and get ready for tomorrow.”
Bekah Slattery, the Bald Eagles’ two-time All-Region ace honored earlier this week as the 2019 Atlantic Region Pitcher of the Year, earned her 21st win of the season but senior workhorse had to throw more than 250 pitches to get it.
The Hilltoppers got to Slattery for 9 hits to go along with 8 walks but left a staggering 17 runners on base as Slattery came up with 14 strikeouts to work her way out of several jams.
Lock Haven staked Slattery to a 2-0 lead with single runs in the first and third innings. Becca Caputo came through with an RBI single in the top of the first and Rachel Gricoski lined a 2-out RBI triple down the left field line in the top of the third.
The Hilltoppers got a run back in the bottom of the fourth on an RBI single from Kaitlyn Stress and tied it in the bottom of the sixth when they loaded the bases with one out and Kate Meloun laced an RBI single up the middle.
With West Liberty threatening to take the lead, Slattery retired the next two hitters on a strikeout and infield popup to keep the game tied. The Hilltoppers left the bases loaded for the third time in the first six innings.
Slattery seemed to find her second wind at that point and the game settled into a pitchers’ duel between Slattery and WLU freshman reliever Taylor Bonnett, who came on to get the final two outs in the top of the seventh.
Bonnett and Slattery traded goose eggs for the next seven innings. Slattery shut out the Hilltoppers on one hit over the final nine innings in a masterful performance but Bonnett was every bit as stingy.
The freshman righty matched Slattery zero for zero until the 15th when she left the circle after Lock Haven’s first two batters reached on a walk and hit-by-pitch.
That’s when the youthful hosts finally ran out of gas as two more walks, a handful of wild pitches and three singles that didn’t get out of the infield helped the Bald Eagles break the game open and bring the marathon to a close.
Meloun, Stress and Sydney Bennington each had a pair of hits to lead the Hilltopper attack.
Amanda Criss had three singles for LHU while Caputo, Slattery, Faith Ceely and Madison Mathes chipped in with two hits apiece.
Shepherd 10, Concord 2
In the second game of the day, Connor Gilligan clubbed a three-run homer in the bottom of the first and the Rams never took their foot off the gas in powering past the Mountain Lions.
Concord closed the gap to 3-2 in the third on a 2-run single by Jenna Witt but Shepherd broke the game open with back-to-back three-run innings in the third and fourth frames.
Gilligan led the way for the Rams, driving in five runs with a home run and a double. Kaitlyn Konopka, Nicole Purtell, Lori Sturgill and Tori Seymour all had two hits each as the Rams raked out a total of 13 hits, capped by Rachel Taylor’s game-ending RBI single in the sixth.
Lori Sturgill went the distance for the win, finishing with two strikeouts and three walks while holding the potent Concord lineup to just five hits. Witt accounted for two of the Mountain Lions’ five hits.