BELTON- For much of the season, Blakely Niles has made a name for herself behind the plate as a catcher with exceptional arm strength to throw out would-be base stealers and as a crucial component to UMHB’s defensive success.
But it was at the plate that Niles made her presence most known on Friday afternoon, as the UMHB softball team fought elimination and prevailed, defeating St. Thomas (TX), 8-0. The win puts the Cru in Saturday’s regional final against Berry College.
Niles hit at a high level in the win, tallying at least one RBI in each of her three plate appearances, going 2-for-2 with four RBIs.
The senior from Cleveland, Texas, gave the Cru its first lead when she drove in Taylor Holman from third base on a sacrifice fly to left field in the second inning. She then followed that up with a fourth-inning single to center field, bringing two more runs across with two outs, for a 3-0 lead.
And in her final at-bat of the afternoon, in the fifth inning, Niles capped off a four-run frame with an RBI single that dropped into right field, and scored Bailey Eggleston for UMHB’s 7-0 advantage. It marked the second time this season that Niles finished with four RBIs in a game.
She was not the only one who had a big day at the plate, though. Eggleston’s double in the fifth proved notable, considering that it was UMHB’s first extra-base hit of the tournament, and also because it pushed two runs across for a 6-0 lead. Holman not only tallied a pair of hits, but also scored twice in the win, and Julia Crofut joined Niles, Eggleston, and Holman in the multi-hit club, with a 2-for-4 performance of her own.
UST had no answer for the Cru’s hot hitting, and used three different pitchers over the course of the contest. None allowed fewer than two hits.
The Cru achieved its decisive eighth run thanks to Kaitlin Powers’ exceptional baserunning in the sixth inning. While on second base with Crofut at the plate, a low pitch from UST reliever Laure Trott hit the dirt. Though UST catcher Adelyn Becerra blocked the pitch, it rolled a couple feet away, just far enough for Powers to take off from second and slide under the tag at third.
When Crofut sent a fly ball to shallow right field, Powers took advantage of a high throw to home that sailed above the head of Becerra, and sprinted down the third-base line. Trott relayed the ball to Becerra, but Powers slid into the plate just moments before the tag was placed, giving UMHB an 8-0 lead.
Kami Flores also pitched at the top of her game in her first appearance of the tournament. The ASC Tri-Pitcher of the Year, Flores delivered 6.0 scoreless innings, allowing six hits with zero walks. Only twice did the Celts put multiple runners on base at the same time, as UST’s six hits were scattered throughout the innings.
UMHB enters Saturday’s regional final against Berry with momentum, though the Vikings have not yet lost in this regional. Berry took down UMHB, 2-1, early on Friday afternoon (see the recap below). The Cru needs two victories over Berry tomorrow afternoon, with action from Dee Dillon Field beginning at noon.
UMHB top hitters: Blakely Niles (2-for-2, 4 RBIs), Taylor Holman (2-for-3, 2 runs, RBI), Julia Crofut (2-for-4, run, RBI), Bailey Eggleston (2-for-2, run, 2 RBIs)
W: Kami Flores, UMHB (16-6): 6.0 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB
L: Bailey Tisdale, UST (18-4): 3.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB
Game 1 (published at 3:13 p.m.) : UMHB falls to Berry, 2-1
BELTON- Facing the nation’s No. 2 ranked team and arguably one of the best pitching staffs in the country, it was clear that runs would come at a premium for the UMHB softball team in Friday’s matchup against Berry.
That proved to be the way the contest played out, though Berry had a similar difficulty when it came to run production. But the Vikings pulled out a narrow 2-1 victory over the Crusaders, advancing to Saturday’s regional final.
UMHB will face the winner of this afternoon’s elimination matchup between Rosemont and St. Thomas (TX) at 5 pm tonight. The winner of the 5 p.m. contest will meet Berry in the regional final.
“We had opportunities every inning,” UMHB head coach Melissa Mojica said postgame. “[If we go] back and do the little things right, and execute a little bit better, we get the win. But we’re still in it, so we have a chance.”
UMHB starter Grason Long struggled in the early part of the first inning as she settled in against a Berry lineup that entered the contest averaging seven runs per game. Three of the first four Viking batters singled, loading the bases with one out. But in a tight spot, Long struck out two of the next three batters she faced, with a walk to Lauren Cothern sandwiched between the two. The walk brought Berry’s first run of the game across, but UMHB escaped without any further damage. Long now has 131 strikeouts this season, just one shy of tying the program’s single-season record.
It took just four batters for the Cru to tie the score at one apiece, as Lexi Harris and Lindsey Polleschultz–UMHB’s first two batters–recorded singles of their own. Julia Crofut’s sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third before Taylor Holman fought off an 0-2 count and drove a high fly ball to deep center field.
Berry centerfielder Aleeya Thornton caught Holman’s fly ball just before the fence, but it was more than deep enough for Harris to score on, as she tagged from third base.
Berry reclaimed the lead in the third, as Anna Jackson doubled with one out. Things were trending in a positive direction for UMHB, however, after the Cru tallied the inning’s second out. But then Cothern hit a sharp ground ball in the direction of Polleschultz at shortstop, and sprinted towards first base. The throw was low and went past Crofut’s glove at first, allowing Jackson, who was by that point at third base, to cross the plate on the play, putting Berry back in front, 2-1.
Though UMHB had a handful of opportunities later in the game as the Cru attempted to even the score, Berry starter Hannah Gore by and large limited the damage. The ace of the Berry pitching staff, Gore entered the game with a 0.74 ERA and gave up just three hits. UMHB put a runner on third base just twice in the game.
While Gore walked three batters, including two in the fourth, none of those led to a run. Remarkably accurate, Gore’s three walks were the most she had issued in a single game since March 16.
One of UMHB’s few scoring opportunities came in the fourth, when Crofut’s walk and Bailey Eggleston’s one-out single put runners on first and second. A walk to Blakely Niles loaded the bases with two outs, but Gore induced a popup off the bat of Izzy Gutierrez that ended the inning, as Berry left fielder Katie White made the out in foul territory.
In the seventh, Elissa Elliott led off with a single to the left-center field gap, but never advanced past first base. Gore retired the next three batters, sealing the win for Berry.
Heading into an elimination matchup this evening will not be unfamiliar territory for the Cru, who fought elimination in four straight ASC Tournament games a week ago. Long said postgame that having played in the win-or-go-home atmosphere a week ago will help as the Cru look ahead in the Belton Regional.
“We work well when we’re down,” Long added. “So I think it gives us more confidence, going into the rest of the games today and tomorrow. It gives us that push that we need to finish the tournament on.”
UMHB top hitters: Lexi Harris (1-for-3, run), Lindsey Polleschultz (1-for-3), Bailey Eggleston (1-for-3)
W: Hannah Gore, Berry (15-0): 7.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
L: Grason Long, UMHB (17-5): 7.0 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 6 K