DIVISION III NATIONAL TITLE
By Dan Myers
Special to NCAA.com
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — It wasn’t pretty for East Texas Baptist. But when you’re trying to win a national championship, style points rarely matter.
The Tigers took advantage of pair of late Linfield miscues in the field, scored one run in each, in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings before finally breaking through with a pair in the seventh inning to capture their first ever Division III softball national title, defeating the Wildcats, 5-4, at Carson Park.
Trailing 4-3 heading into the bottom of the seventh, ETBU needed one to extend the game and two to win. The Tigers had the bases loaded with nobody out just an inning earlier, and could not find an equalizer.
Brooke Martin led off the inning with a sharp single to left, and a sacrifice bunt moved her into scoring position. Alicia Wright reached first on an error after a funny bounce at short, moving Martin to third. A single by Meghan Fisher tied the game at four and moved the winning run to second base. A ground out moved the runners to second and third – but with two outs.
That set up a moment Stacy Havner will remember for the rest of her life.
The senior from Kirbyville, Tex. grounded the ball to second. The game appeared headed for extra innings, but the ball took two funny bounces and hit Alex Hartmann high and skipped away, scoring the deciding run from third.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said ETBU coach Janae Shirley. “This is a great group of kids. I can’t say enough about them.”
The game marked another comeback victory for ETBU, which came back to win after trailing for the third time in four games during the tournament. In all, 15 of ETBU’s 23 runs in the tournament were scored in the fifth, sixth or seventh innings.
“Something we’ve had to do all year is fight,” Shirley said. “Our divisional play is very tough, so we’ve had to stay in games and not get down on ourselves.
“They’ve had a lot of practice with it, but they’ve done a great job with it too.”
The Wildcats got it going early with a familiar name producing a familiar result. With a runner on, first baseman Staci Doucette hit a towering drive over the left field wall for her 20th home run of the season.
After a 1-2-3 bottom of the first, Linfield nearly broke the game open in the second, loading the bases with just one out. But Wright worked out of the jam, forcing a pop out to second and a groundout to get out of the inning unscathed.
Wright settled down after that, allowing no hits and just one baserunner through the third and fourth innings.
“We had our chances early I thought, to go up by four or five runs,” said Linfield coach Jackson Vaughan. “We didn’t take advantage and that concerned be a bit because East Texas is such a scrappy team.”
East Texas Baptist got on the board in the bottom of the fourth, thanks to an error that allowed Porsha Harrison to reach first to lead off the inning. After a sacrifice bunt moved her to second with one out, Rebecca Young came within inches of tying the game with a blast that hit the top of the wall in left center field. Harrison came around to score and Young ended up at second with a double, pulling Baptist within one at 2-1 after four innings.
With one out and a runner on first in the top of the fifth, a ground ball to short by Doucette had a chance to end the inning. But instead, an error allowed the runner to advance to third and Doucette to reach first, extending the inning for the Wildcats.
They took advantage.
After an uncontested steal of second, Karleigh Prestianni singled up the middle to drive in two runs, pushing the Linfield lead to 4-1.
ETBU pulled back within two in the bottom of the fifth, piecing together a single, a sacrifice and another single to score one and make it 4-2. The Tigers had runners on second and third with one out and had the bases loaded with two outs, but a pair of strikeouts, including the second one by new pitcher Claire Velaski, ended the threat.
The Tigers had a chance to blow the game open in the bottom of the sixth, loading the bases with nobody out. An error allowed one run to score, but Velaski induced three straight groundballs to get out of the inning with the Wildcats’ lead intact at 4-3.
“It was frustrating, but then again, I knew we could do it again,” said pitcher Ayrika Henderson said. “One base at a time, we’ve preached that all season long. As long as someone gets on, we know we have people who can bring her around.”
Henderson earned the win after a spectacular two innings of relief. She allowed no runs and just one hit, striking out one. The victory improved her to 21-7 on the season.
Velaski was good too, getting the Wildcats out of a pair of jams and pitching two innings, allowing three runs, two of them earned. She struck out one.