The fast-rising West Liberty University softball team saw its season end one step shy of a regional title here Saturday afternoon as they dropped a 3-0 decision to Shepherd in the finals of the NCAA Division II Atlantic I Regional at the WLU Softball Complex.
Coach Herb Minch‘s youthful Hilltoppers (38-19) forced their way into the finals of the double-elimination event earlier in the day by finishing off an 8-2 romp past two-time national champion Lock Haven in a game suspended by darkness on Friday.
Shepherd (41-16) advances to next week’s NCAA Division II Atlantic Super Regional where the Rams will take on West Chester, Pa. (37-19) in a best-of-3 series at West Chester.
The Pennsylvania school earned its third straight Atlantic Super Regional berth by defeating West Virginia State, 11-5, in Saturday’s Atlantic II Regional in Institute, W.Va.
“Obviously we’re disappointed today,” Minch said, “but we have nothing to hang our heads about. We lost a 15-inning game in the tournament opener and fought our way back to give ourselves a chance to play for a regional title. I couldn’t be prouder of a group of young women than I am right now.”
Saturday’s Region I final was a pitchers’ duel from the start between West Liberty sophomore Makenzie Amend and Ram senior Lori Sturgill.
Shepherd’s Kaitlyn Konopka led off the game with a bunt single and quickly wound up on third after a hit batter and double steal.
Amend struck out the next batter and Konopka was retired at the plate on a squeeze attempt thanks to a sharp defensive play by catcher Kat Donzella but the Rams ultimately pushed the game’s first run across the plate on a bases loaded walk.
The Hilltopper starter found her groove over the next few innings, retiring 10 straight batters at one point, but Sturgill was just as sharp.
An All-Region selection, Sturgill carried a no-hitter into the fourth before Donzella broke it up with a one-out single up the middle. After Sturgill struck out the next batter, Katie Beeman beat out an infield single but a heads-up defensive play caught Donzella off second to end the inning.
Nicole Purtell gave Sturgill all the cushion she needed with a two-run single in the top of the fifth.
The Hilltoppers got the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the inning and had a runner on with one out in the sixth but Sturgill didn’t allow a WLU runner past second base in finishing off the complete-game win.
“Their pitcher was just outstanding today, as she has been all year,” Minch said. “We had some chances but we just couldn’t break through against her. Shepherd was nationally-ranked for most of the season and you saw why in this tournament. They’re going to be a very tough out no matter who they play next week.”
Sturgill finished with a four-hit shutout, striking out four and walking two while pushing her record to 18-7 on the season. Amend and Taylor Bonnett combined to hold the Rams to just four singles, while issuing three walks and striking out eight.
“We were picked to finish fifth in the (six-team) North Division of our conference coming into the year,” Minch said. “But we won the North Division for the first time, won the MEC Tournament for the first time, finished the year ranked No. 1 in the region for the first time and earned the first NCAA Tournament bid in school history.
“It was a great season and we only lose one senior (Sydney Bennington) so we have everybody coming back. We’ve laid a great foundation and I can’t wait to see these young ladies start building on it.”