Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- Rachel Williams stood in the circle, facing the Sul Ross State batter. With two outs and an 0-2 count to Taryn Griner, Williams needed just one more strike to close out the game, the series, and likely, her career at UMHB’s Dee Dillon Field.
She came through. Griner gave chase to a pitch low and outside, hitting nothing but air. If this was indeed the final home game of the year, there did not seem to be a better way for it to unfold. The Crusaders captured a 3-1 victory, sweeping the Lobos in ASC play. It also gave UMHB a nine-game win streak, the team’s third straight series sweep. Nobody else in the ASC has that to show, entering next week’s regular season finale.
“The players expect to win,” UMHB head coach Melissa Mojica said, “and that’s what they do.”
The pitchers were on point the entire way, as Mojica’s team opened the series with a 2-1 victory on Friday afternoon. Bayleigh Grogan relieved starter Emilee Wade in the third inning, and picked up her 10th win of the year, with 4.2 scoreless innings. SRSU took a 1-0 advantage in the third on Annika Cannaba’s RBI triple, before Grogan was called upon, but the Cru countered in the fifth with two runs of their own.
The pitching may have taken center stage in a series of low-scoring duels, but the hitting was timely, though in smaller quantities than had been seen in last weekend’s sweep of LeTourneau.
Bailey Eggleston led off the fifth inning of game one with a single up the middle, and one batter later, the score was tied, as an error on SRSU catcher Payslee Sims allowed Tatum Stover to reach third, and Eggleston crossed the plate. With Kennedy Kalka, pinch-running for Stover, on third, Blakely Niles lofted a flyball into left field, allowing Kalka to tag and score easily with her supreme speed.
The 2-1 final in game one was followed by a 3-1 victory for the Cru in game two, as Eggleston again played a key role in UMHB’s run production. Alysse Castillo singled in the second, scoring Eggleston for a 1-0 UMHB lead, and after the Lobos responded with a run of their own, she came through with a base hit in the one inning later that gave the Cru a 2-1 lead. Lexi Harris’ sacrifice flyout in the sixth scored Kylie Green for the eventual 3-1 win.
It helped that Williams was virtually unhittable in the circle. SRSU’s lineup did all it could, but was limited to just two hits and three walks, as she sent batter after batter back to the visitor’s dugout. 17 of the 21 outs in the contest were groundouts, as the infield was flawless behind her. Not a single error was committed, and Mojica specifically noted the play of Castillo at third base, who had several key stops that led to outs.
“She took away several base hits in game two that would have been game-changers,” Mojica said of Castillo.
It was the senior duo of Grogan and Williams called upon Saturday to round out the regular season home slate. And each delivered once again, as Grogan set the tone with just four hits and a run over four innings, before Williams gave up a single hit over three scoreless innings, striking out Griner for the statement finish.
Storylines through the series
Senior honorees: Following the victory on Saturday, UMHB honored the team’s seven seniors, who each contributed in monumental ways to this season’s success. Six of the nine starters in the series finale were playing in the final regular season home game of their collegiate career: centerfielder Lexi Harris, shortstop Milly Cesare, catcher Tyeann Johnson, pitcher Bayleigh Grogan, right fielder Bailey Stoker, and first baseman Tatum Stover.
Mojica: “Senior weekend is always so special and emotional. We have the best kids. It was a great sweep and an even better weekend to honor our seven seniors who have been amazing players and people. I am so proud of them.”
Consistency pays dividends: For much of the year, UMHB has lingered at the top of the ASC standings, but with the nine-game win streak, the Cru has put itself in prime position for a high seed at the conference tournament, set for May 5-7. UT-Dallas’ game one win over second-place ETBU yesterday, coupled with UMHB’s sweep, leaves the two tied for second in the standings, each holding 21-6 records. ETBU has the tiebreaker advantage, having beat the Cru 2-1 in a series in Marshall.
Dominance in the circle: The pitching staff had one of its best weekends of the season, allowing the fewest runs in a series and walked a total of just five batters. Grogan picked up two wins in a series for the second time in three weeks, moving to 11-6, and Williams added her second save of the year in game three. Wade, a freshman, went 2.1 innings with four hits and just one run in game one.
Mojica: “All the pitchers were sharp this weekend. We did a great job of limiting walks and hit by pitches. The defense played incredibly.”
UMHB travels to Howard Payne (2-25 ASC) next weekend to close out the regular season. The series in Brownwood begins with a 2 p.m. Friday doubleheader, and is capped in a noon duel on Saturday.