As is often the case, the pitching matchup that began the NCAA Division II Atlantic II Region softball tournament on Thursday came down to a question of which team better handled its pressure inning.
Winston-Salem State got its first NCAA tournament win in school history at Lady Jacket Field in Institute, using a two-run double by junior Shauntaja Dedecker in the top of the first off West Virginia State freshman starter Emilee Walker to help the Rams to a 3-0 victory.
The Rams (33-11) got all three of their runs in the first inning. Walker retired the Rams in order in five of the last six innings and faced the minimum after the first, allowing just a fifth-inning single to Kortney Thomas after the shaky start.
“In the first inning, I don’t there was anything that [Walker] did. I just think it was the energy of our team that capitalized on her,” said Dedecker, who leads the Rams with 10 home runs this season.
“We capitalized when we had our chances to. We were taking our hands to the ball and hitting the ball where we needed to.”
Walker acknowledged that nerves got the best of her in throwing the first inning of an NCAA regional to be played at WVSU in school history. The Yellow Jackets are the No. 2 seed overall in the Atlantic Region.
“I was just trying to do my best and make my pitches, but I guess I was too nervous and was kind of freaking out a little bit,” Walker said. “After the first inning I kind of got into game mode and thought, ‘They’ve already scored so there’s really not any pressure.’”
When it came time for Winston-Salem junior pitcher Erica Davis to face the music in the bottom of the seventh, she escaped without giving up a run when the Rams turned their third double play of the game to seal the win.
State senior catcher Brittany Allison reached base with a one-out walk, and sophomore Paige Scruggs followed with a single to left field. State coach Mattie Best then substituted freshman Kasey Murphy into the lineup to pinch-hit for Madison Rafuson.
Murphy lined out to Rams third baseman Alleigh Himes, who caught Allison too far off second and doubled her up to end the game.
“We haven’t had that many double plays in one game all season,” Rams coach LaTaya Hillard-Gray said.
It was a rare development for the Yellow Jackets, too, who had grounded into double plays just twice all season entering the tournament.
“That was really critical,” Best said. “When you’re setting up double plays, that’s a big momentum changer. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to change it and they kept the momentum.”
Davis improved to 15-7 on the season, had one strikeout and recorded nine of her first 15 outs via fly balls. Walker struck out seven but fell to 7-2 on the year.
“We can produce what we call ‘easy outs’ if we use our mechanics and make sure the ball moves and produces based on that pitch,” Hillard-Gray said. “We’re competing against that yellow ball. We’re not competing against the other team, we’re competing against that yellow ball.”
Dedecker went 2 for 3 and had the game’s only extra-base hit. Scruggs went 2 for 3 for State in the loss.
The loss drops West Virginia State (33-15) into the losers bracket, where it will face Gannon (30-15) in an elimination game at approximately 1:30 p.m. Friday. Gannon lost to West Chester 8-2 in Thursday’s other first-round game.
The win keeps Winston-Salem State in the winners bracket, where it will face West Chester (35-19) at 11 a.m. Friday.
The WVSU-Gannon winner survives to play at about 4 p.m. Friday against the loser of the game between Winston-Salem and West Chester.