Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- For the first time in program history, the UMHB softball team has shut out an opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
Thursday afternoon’s 2-0 victory over St. Thomas (TX) was exactly the kind of start the Cru needed in the program’s first national tournament appearance since 2008, as they scored first in the bottom of the third inning, and Grason Long held the Celts to just three hits in a complete-game effort.
“We played great defensively,” UMHB head coach Melissa Mojica said postgame. “Grason pitched well, and we put hits together when we needed some runs. Overall, it was a great day.”
One of those timely stretches of hitting came in the bottom of the fourth inning, with the Cru leading 1-0. No lead is entirely safe in postseason play, and UMHB did what it could to widen the margin, taking advantage of scoring opportunities.
With two outs, Lexi Harris singled, moving Julia Crofut, who had been hit by a pitch, to second base. Lindsey Polleschultz, who was 3-for-4 in the victory, then came through with a hard-hit single of her own, driving in Crofut for the 2-0 lead.
Polleschultz also factored into UMHB’s first run in the third inning, as she put down a well-placed bunt with no outs that advanced Harris to second base. And using the tremendous speed that serves her well at the shortstop position, Polleschultz beat out the throw at first base. A UST error on a ground ball from Izzy Gutierrez allowed Harris to score one batter later, putting UMHB in front.
“I just wanted to get on base for my team,” Polleschultz said. “I wanted to swing at my pitch; nothing over my head or too low. Whenever runners are in scoring position, [I just tried] to score them, and make a difference.”
Harris and Polleschultz, the first two hitters in UMHB’s consistent lineup, were the lone Crusaders with multi-hit performances in the win. But UMHB had eight hits overall, a rare feat against UST ace Bailey Tisdale, who entered the contest with an 18-2 record and 1.93 ERA.
For UMHB, Long put together another strong showing in the circle, as just four base runners reached base for UST, in what marked her 17th win of the year. She did not walk a batter for the third time in the last four games.
“They came out of the SCAC and had a little bit of momentum,” Long said. “So I was just focused on throwing my game and staying true to who I am.”
Additionally, a number of stellar plays made by the defense behind her helped preserve the shutout, keeping UST off the scoreboard.
Allyse Castillo’s double play in the fifth inning generated momentum, as the third baseman caught a line drive off the bat of Kayleigh Deakle for the inning’s first out, and without hesitating, fired the ball across the infield to first base. It caught UST’s Hailey Jackson, who was on first, off guard. Before she could slide back into the bag, the ball hit Crofut’s glove for the second out.
Taylor Holman made a key diving catch in right field as well one inning later, with a runner on second base for UST. That inning-ending, SportsCenter-worthy snag from Holman drew a loud cheer from the UMHB dugout.
“They brought their best,” UST head coach Angela Froboese said of UMHB. “They made some amazing plays that saved some innings.”
The Cru and the Celts had a bit of familiarity, considering they had faced off in a doubleheader on the first day of the season on Feb. 18. Though both teams made significant strides over the course of the season, Froboese said that the quality of play between UMHB and UST was of great quality in both instances.
“The intensity is always going to change a little, because you’re figuring out who your team and identity happens to be. But it still felt very similar, because when you’re playing a good team, our girls know they have to bring their best. If we were to be fortunate enough to play them again, I’d expect the exact same kind of intensity..”
Getting to this point is an achievement in itself for UMHB, who has accomplished plenty since the season’s inception in February. A year ago, the Cru were “on the bubble” when it came to qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, vying for an at-large bid, but were not selected. And entering Monday’s bracket reveal, there was still a bit of question as to whether the Cru would indeed be selected as an at-large team, though they appeared to have more than enough of a tournament-worthy resume.
As Polleschultz said, “I knew it was either going to be happy tears [when our name was called] or sad tears [if we weren’t selected]. I’m just thankful that it was happy tears that day.”
The Belton Regional was one of the last to be announced, so naturally, the anticipation built. But once they knew they were in, and hosting on top of that, they had no doubt that there were still more victories to be tallied in the familiar confines of Dee Dillon Field.
“We have nine seniors, so we were all super excited to play on Dee Dillon one more time,” Long said.
“We play in the ASC, which prepares us throughout the year to play some of the best teams in the nation,” Mojica added, noting she felt the same way as Polleschultz when the time came for the bracket to be revealed. “We knew if we could just get in and compete, we would be able to do something.”
UMHB will get another national test, perhaps its biggest test of the season thus far, when the Cru battles No. 2-ranked Berry in Belton at noon on Friday. The champion out of the SAA, Berry’s pitching staff has 17 shutouts this season, the fifth-most in D-III, and beat Rosemont, 5-1, on Thursday. The winner of that matchup will play in Saturday’s regional final.
UMHB top hitters: Lindsey Polleschultz (3-for-4, RBI), Lexi Harris (2-for-4, run), Julia Crofut (1-for-2, run)
W: Grason Long, UMHB (17-4): 7.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
L: Bailey Tisdale, UST (18-3): 3.2 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K