With the momentum it has going, West Virginia State’s softball team has to like its chances on Saturday.
The Yellow Jackets completed a sweep of the elimination bracket in the NCAA Division II Atlantic 2 Region on Friday, getting a 1-0 win over Gannon and an 8-0 revenge win over Winston-Salem State to advance to Saturday’s championship round. WVSU will face West Chester at noon at Lady Jacket Field in Institute.
The advance into the championship round marks the furthest the WVSU program has ever advanced in NCAA play.
“It’s a very emotional time for me. I played here and that was one of the things we always strived for but we never reached,” second-year Yellow Jackets coach Mattie Best said of the milestone. “It’s a lot of relief, and it was the end-goal, the big goal I had in mind at the beginning of the year.
“I’m very proud of this group for accomplishing it,” Best said.
Of course, accomplishing a goal doesn’t mean Best and the Yellow Jackets (34-15) have any desire to take their collective foot off the gas. Beginning with Emilee Walker’s six shutout innings to finish State’s 3-0 loss to Winston-Salem State, Yellow Jacket pitchers have thrown 18 consecutive shutout innings.
Freshman Kasey Murphy threw a three-hit shutout in the team’s second win on Friday, with every out recorded by either strikeout or by her infielders. Nine of the Rams’ 15 outs were ground outs.
“I did well with hitting my spots, and basically they were just hitting them to our players and they got them out,” said the freshman.
The tournament began with State giving up three runs in the Rams’ first at-bat on Thursday. The scenario completely flipped in the team’s elimination game.
After Murphy got a pair of strikeouts as part of a 1-2-3 top of the first, it was the Yellow Jackets’ turn to capitalize on first-inning jitters. Winston-Salem sophomore pitcher Tia Robinson walked State senior shortstop Kayleigh Thompson to start the inning, and the situation quickly deteriorated from there.
State senior Brookelyn Hale reached on an error with Thompson taking third and then scoring when an attempt to throw her out bounced into left field. Emma Ruth was then hit by a pitch and Brittany Allison drew a one-out walk after Hale was gunned down trying to score on a double steal.
That set the stage for junior Paige Scruggs — named to the All-Atlantic Region second team earlier Friday — who smacked a two-run double off the top of the left-center field fence.
It was State’s only hit of the inning, but thanks to four Winston-Salem errors and a pair of stolen bases, the Yellow Jackets staked themselves to a 5-0 lead.
“We came together when we needed to, and we got runs when we needed to, as we didn’t yesterday,” said Scruggs, who is 4 for 8 in the tournament.
State tacked on a pair of runs in the second as Winston-Salem State (33-13) committed yet another error and Ruth got an RBI single. Hale and Allison each hit doubles in the fourth to account for State’s final run.
Winston-Salem State coach LaTaya Hillard-Gray said once her team lost 12-4 in Friday’s opening game against West Chester (36-19), it was scrambling for answers it simply couldn’t find.
“When you find yourself in the losers bracket you ask yourself, ‘What do I need to do to adjust?’ I think nerves played a part. Our first baseman’s a freshman and our shortstop’s a redshirt freshman. It came out today,” Hillard-Gray said.
After catching the first 13 innings of the scoreless streak, Allison said she believes the momentum gained by the team’s pitching and hitting working together in unison will carry over into Saturday.
“It takes a lot of stress and a lot of worry off of what we’ve had going on through this tournament,” Allison said. “I think us coming up last game at the end and then coming through and staying hot all the way through this game, I think that will keep us hungry.”
State and Gannon (30-16) were scoreless into the bottom of the sixth on Friday, when Thompson laid down a bunt that immediately stopped dead in the dirt, allowing her to reach base with a one-out single. Hale followed with a triple to the right-center field fence that allowed Thompson to score, giving pitcher Emily Moore all the offense she needed.
Moore got the Golden Knights in order in the seventh to seal the win and a three-hit shutout.