Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- The contrast of emotion didn’t need to be seen. It could be felt throughout Dee Dillon Field on Saturday afternoon as rain began falling from the overcast sky.
On one side of home plate, there was ETBU, trophy in hand, celebrating its American Southwest Conference Tournament title with much enthusiasm.
And on the other, near third base, stood UMHB, with looks of disbelief, shock, and disappointment on the faces of a group of players who had fought with every last ounce of energy they had left in four straight elimination games over a two-day span. They had come within two outs of forcing a decisive matchup with ETBU on Sunday.
Minutes earlier, ETBU erased the Cru’s 2-0 lead in one swift swing of the bat, with Tauryn Cummings’ double hitting the grass in the left-center field gap. The bases were loaded and Cumming’s lone hit in the eighth inning proved to be the difference, as all three base runners crossed the plate, ending the game in a 3-2 extra-innings ETBU win.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to be the ‘winning aspect’ today,” Cummings said postgame. “I was just trying to be a team player. I just tried to make it as simple as I could and it worked out perfectly.”
For seven innings, the momentum swayed back and forth. ETBU had a number of scoring opportunities, particularly in the first inning when the Tigers loaded the bases with no outs. Yet on multiple occasions, the Crusaders found a way to keep it scoreless. ETBU, with ace pitcher Ashley Croft in the circle, did much of the same, holding UMHB to just two hits through the seventh.
Neither side wavered, as both defenses made play after play, staying in lockstep with the opposition. In the third, ETBU’s Tristen Madd attempted to steal home as she raced down the third base line. But UMHB catcher Blakely Niles successfully put down a perfectly-placed tag that followed a near-perfect throw from shortstop Lindsey Polleschultz, keeping the Tigers scoreless with Madd called out at the plate.
The importance of the small details, which UMHB head coach Melissa Mojica noted multiple times over the course of the tournament, played into the outcome drastically. For two teams as strong offensively as ETBU and UMHB, neither scoring for seven straight innings took more than just quality softball.
It took UMHB second baseman Elissa Elliott’s line-drive catches in the fifth and sixth. It took ETBU’s inning-ending double play in the sixth, just after Lexi Harris had singled through the middle. It took heads-up baserunning from Elliott in the eighth, when she found her way to second base after an ETBU error, which led to the Cru’s first run of the game on an RBI double from Julia Crofut.
Heartbreak may have been the emotion with which the majority of the UMHB faithful walked away from the pivotal contest; the ending was certainly not what the Cru had hoped for. It was the outcome they had hoped to avoid in such a fluid game where the anticipation from both sides could be felt moments before every pitch, as the tension built with each passing inning.
But the initial emotion is not what defines success. For UMHB, this ASC Tournament performance said more about the team’s camaraderie, buy-in, and resilience than any regular season winning streak ever could. Because accomplishment is not solely defined in the win-loss totals, but rather in the quality of the battle itself. And UMHB certainly fought uphill for the majority of the weekend.
McMurry shocked the Cru on Thursday night with its six-run outburst in the final inning, and promptly sent UMHB into elimination mode. But the Cru did not back down.
They outscored UT-Dallas and LeTourneau by a combined 13 runs, and then turned around less than 24 hours later, and sent McMurry back to Abilene in a 1-0 victory. Grason Long tossed a no-hitter–her second of the year– and Taylor Holman delivered a memorable sixth-inning home run that put the Cru in front for good.
“Grason came out and was ready to go,” Mojica said following the ETBU loss. “She wanted another chance at McMurry, as did our entire team. There was a lot of energy. That game could’ve gone either way too. We were lucky to come out on top, just executed some little things, and Holman had the big hit.”
When elimination is on the line, it often forces teams to dig deeper than they ordinarily would. UMHB did just that, and it carried all the way up through the tournament’s final play. Even with ETBU’s Delanie Loya, who represented the winning run, rounding third base and well on her way to the plate, UMHB left fielder Bailey Eggleston put everything she had into the throw from the outfield. Sent with it was one last gasp of hope, and the message that the Cru would not go down without, at the very least, contesting the go-ahead run.
At no point was there a lapse in the relentless pursuit of a conference title, and the Crusaders’ three wins in this year’s edition of the ASC tournament marked the most in program history since the 2013 season.
“We have 30 players and 1 through 30 are invested 100 percent in whatever their role is on this team,” Mojica said. “I don’t have to ask them to do anything. They just get it done and support each other.”
There is still another chapter of the 2023 season to be written, if things play out in the way they are anticipated to. Competing in a deep, challenging league, and currently ranked No. 3 in Region 10, UMHB went 7-5 against regionally-ranked opponents this season. Though Texas Lutheran, No. 2 currently in Region 10, will take an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament due to its loss in the SCAC Tournament, there is a strong chance UMHB will come off the board not far behind. 18 at-large bids are being awarded in this year’s national tournament, which will be announced, along with the complete bracket, on Monday at noon.
Until then, it is a waiting game for one of the most accomplished teams in program history. Postseason defeat is a challenging pill to swallow, especially when it comes in such a high-level contest as it did Saturday afternoon. ‘Bittersweet’ might be the word to describe it all. UMHB played a near-perfect game against the nation’s ninth-ranked team. At the same time, the Cru lost in one of sport’s most heartbreaking ways.
When it ends, it’s always too soon, especially for a group as tightly-knit as this one.
“It’s a pretty amazing and special unit that we have,” Mojica said. “That’s what makes it even tougher when you see kids who have worked for months now and it just doesn’t go our way. That’s all that happened today. It just didn’t go our way.”
UMHB selections to the ASC All-Tournament Team: P Grason Long, OF Taylor Holman, OF Bailey Eggleston, OF Lexi Harris
UMHB top hitters: Lexi Harris (2-for-3, RBI), Julia Crofut (1-for-3, RBI)
W: Ashley Croft, ETBU (19-1): 8.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
L: Kami Flores, UMHB (15-6): 7.1 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 1 K