Valdosta, Ga. - The Valdosta State softball team celebrated Mother's Day with a strong offensive performance to defeat Tampa 12-6 and claim the NCAA South 1 Regional Championship on Sunday at Steel's Diamond at Blazer Park.
The Blazers (44-10), who served as the visiting team in the game, took a 2-0 lead in the second inning when freshman Kiley Rusen drilled a two run homerun to right center off of Tampa's (33-10) ace, Kayla Cox. The homer was Rusen's first of her Blazer career and the fifth allowed by Cox in the regional tournament. Before the weekend, Cox had given up only one long ball for the entire 2013 season.
After a leadoff walk by Courtney Albritton in the third, Tampa head coach Leslie Kanter decided to bring Julia Morrow in to relieve Cox, who had pitched 21 innings up to that point in the weekend tournament. Following the pitching change, Valdosta State continued to deliver damage and sent two more across the plate. Morgan Johnson was hit by a pitch, and Steinhilber loaded the bases with a chopping single to the right side of the infield. In the next at bat, Sarah Vaughn walked in the third run of the game for the Blazers, and Fran Johnson did the same one batter later to give the Blazers a 4-0 lead.
Although Tampa's top pitcher was pulled in the third, the Spartans didn't go quietly. They scored three runs of their own to pull within one in the bottom of the third inning. Brie Walton slapped a base hit to left field with one away, and shortstop Kayleen Boatwright followed with a sharp liner through the middle. Katie Bannon loaded the bases with a fielder's choice, and Meagan Burke, who went 3-4 with two runs batted in, drove in two with a hit to center field to put Tampa on the board. Brianna Hancock entered the game to relieve Hanna Lythberg in the circle, and Stacy Piagno lifted a sacrifice fly to left to bring in Bannon before Taylor Storey lined out the third to end the threat by the Spartans.
In the fourth, Blazer designated player Lindsey Hamlin led off with an inside the park homerun. The ball rolled under the glove of a sliding Katlyn Raatz, who tried to cut it off on the line in shallow right field. By the time Raatz recovered, the ball had rolled into the right field corner and Hamlin was off to the races. Coach Thomas Macera chose to wave Hamlin which resulted in a play at the plate and the junior sliding feet first just under the tag of Storey. The home run was Hamlin's third of the season.
A two out single by Steinhilber in the sixth, followed by the aid of a fielding error by Boatwright at short on a Vaughn grounder, set up Rusen to pick up two more RBI's with a triple down the left field line, another season first for the Blazer first baseman. Rusen finished the day with three hits in five at bats and six runs batted in, pushing her season RBI total to 32.
Valdosta State put the game out of reach with five additional runs in the top of the final inning. Hamlin reached on an error with one out, Morgan Johnson walked one out later, and Shelby Altman singled to drive in Angela O'Connor, who pinch ran for Hamlin earlier in the half inning. Steinhilber loaded the bases once again with her third hit of the day and Vaughn walked to collect her second RBI, giving the Blazers a 9-3 lead. Rusen's soft hit to right brought in two more runs, and the Blazers scored their 12th and final run with a rip back through the box by Hannah Strickland, scoring Vaughn from third.
Of the eight hits allowed by Hancock, five of them came in the bottom of the seventh inning, but the lead was too much to overcome for Tampa, and the junior pitcher closed the game out for the Blazers with a final score of 12-6. Hancock collected wins in all three games of the tournament for Valdosta State and improved her record to 19-4 on the year.
The Blazers continue their pursuit of a national title next weekend in the NCAA Division II Super Regional, which is projected to be hosted by Valdosta State at Steel's Diamond in Valdosta. Super Regional action begins on Friday. Stay tuned to www.vstateblazers.com for updates.