Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BROWNWOOD, Texas- Three weeks ago, UMHB softball head coach Melissa Mojica said that if her team could stay focused, there was great potential to win the final nine games on the ASC schedule.
The Crusaders did just that. A win streak started by a sweep of Concordia in Austin gave way to victory after victory over the final three weekends of the season. In fact, UMHB, ranked No. 10 in the nation, has not lost since April 2. And that was on the road against national power ETBU.
There was nothing last-place Howard Payne could do, even on the Yellow Jackets’ home turf to quell the strength of UMHB’s pitching staff, which allowed just one run over three games, or the Crusaders’ bats, whose 27 hits paved the way to a pair of run-rule victories on the final weekend of the season.
The series opener on Friday afternoon played out extremely even, with two aces dueling for the entirety of the contest. Bayleigh Grogan took to the circle for the Crusaders, firing a complete-game shutout, with just two hits and a walk allowed in 24 batters faced. On the other side, HPU’s Isabella Buckley went a full seven innings, surrendering just three hits and a pair of walks. The lone run was not even charged to her stat line, as it resulted from an error.
That lone run was pushed across in the top of the seventh, as the Cru broke the 0-0 tie on Bailey Stoker’s RBI single to left-center field with one out. The Yellow Jackets did record an out of the play, catching Bailey Eggleston charging home from second base. But Elissa Elliott, who opened the inning by reaching first on an error, easily scored from third. It was the deciding factor in UMHB’s second 1-0 win of the year, as Grogan sent the final three Yellow Jacket batters down in order in the bottom of the inning.
If game one was highlighted by the work of two superior arms, the second duel of the day’s doubleheader featured the strength of UMHB’s bats. A nine-run fourth inning contributed to a lopsided, 10-0 victory for the visitors from Belton, who run-ruled the Yellow Jackets after five innings in a game that spanned just five minutes past one hour in length.
It was Stoker who brought home the first run, with Lexi Harris scoring on a groundout. The HPU infield made several key plays that kept the Cru at bay for the first three innings. But as in the series opener, it did not last. Costly errors gave UMHB opportunity on the basepaths, which the Crusaders quickly took advantage of as the game spiraled out of control for HPU. In fact, between the two Yellow Jacket pitchers; Hannah Morales and Bree Cason, just one of UMHB’s 10 runs was earned, with the additional nine coming on four errors. Three of those were recorded in the fourth, as UMHB sent 12 batters to the plate, pounding out seven hits. Stoker added two more RBIs, driving in Harris and Tyeann Johnson on a single that made it 6-0 in the fourth.
Rachel Williams allowed two hits or less for the third straight outing, going the full five innings with just two hits, two walks and zero runs. Her ERA is now at 2.59, remarkable considering she hit the 100-inning mark on Friday.
Kami Flores and Grason Long combined for another tremendous pitching performance for the Cru in the series finale, as HPU was limited to just one run in a second-straight run-rule victory for UMHB. In her first outing since April 15, Flores fired three innings with just three hits and one run allowed before Long was called upon for the final two innings of relief. Long did not allow a hit and struck out five in a dominant showing.
The 9-1 win saw shortstop Milly Cesare go 2-for-3 at the plate with four RBIs, as she singled in the third, scoring two, and brought two more baserunners across with a third-inning double to right field. The latter of the two hits made it 8-1, before a Blakely Niles double one inning later scored Kylie Green and proved enough for the run-rule victory.
Storylines throughout the series
History in the making: With the doubleheader sweep on Friday, UMHB eclipsed the 30-win mark for just the third time in the program’s D-III history. The last 30-win season came in 2014, but that included ASC tournament wins to reach the mark, and in 2008, the first time it occurred, UMHB reached the NCAA Tournament. The record for the most wins in a season in UMHB history is 35, also set in 2008.
Strength in the circle: In a trend that has helped lead UMHB to the last 12 victories, the pitching was spot-on in all three contests. It marked the first time this season that the Cru allowed a total of one run in a weekend series, and that was without Emilee Wade, who had pitched in each of the last five series, but was unavailable due to a concussion. The pitching staff posted a combined ERA of 0.53 on the weekend.
Mojica: “All 4 pitchers came out, looked sharp and pitched well. It’s a great feeling going into the conference tourney to have the pitching staff working so well and knowing anyone can go in and win a game for you.”
UMHB travels to Cleveland, Mississippi for the ASC Tournament, which spans from May 5-7 and will be played on the campus of Delta State University. The Cru will be the tournament’s No. 3 seed and play an opening round game at 4 p.m. against an opponent to be determined.