VALDOSTA, GA. (WTXL) — Needing to win two games to claim the 2021 NCAA Division II South Region Championship, the No. 9 Valdosta State softball team dug deep in front of a great home crowd to upend West Florida, 4-2 and 6-4 to advance to their fifth NCAA D2 National Championship round in program history.
The 2021 NCAA Division II National Championship is scheduled for May 27-31 at The Assembly Athletic Complex at MSU Denver in Denver, Colo. VSU should find out Sunday who it will be facing first and when. Check back with vstateblazers.com for updates on the matchup when it is announced.
VSU improved to 60-39 all-time in the NCAA Tournament in 19 appearances and has qualified for the national championship round in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and now in 2021. VSU won the national championship in 2012 and was national runner-up in both 2010 and 2014.
The Blazers made the plays both offensively and defensively when they needed to on Saturday to earn the sweep as sophomore Hunter Meadows and junior Nicole Pennington each had two hits on the day for the Blazers, while four different Blazers tallied home runs. Freshman Taylor Macera went 1 for 5 with a home run and three RBI, while Pennington was 2 for 5 with two runs scored, one triple, one home run and three RBI. She was named South Region Tournament Most Outstanding Player. VSU finished the day with four huge home runs and now has 105 home runs for the season for a tie for fourth-most in NCAA history with West Texas A&M (2014).
On the mound, sophomore Samantha Richards, who has been masterful all season long, was outstanding once again on Saturday as she went 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA in two appearances with one start, one complete game and threw 11.2 innings. More impressively, she went 4-1 in the regionals, appearing in all five games, with a 1.55 ERA in 31.2 innings, allowing 30 hits, eight runs – seven earned, walked just one and fanned 18 with four starts, four complete games and one shutout. Along with Pennington and Richards, freshmen Aniston Gano and Morgan Hill also earned all-tournament honors.
#9 Valdosta State 4, West Florida 2 (Regional Championship Game One)
With two out and a 3-2 count, Gano fielded the ball in the top of the first and Mika Garcia rounded third for home. Gano threw to home and senior Lacey Crandall tagged Garcia, but after a discussion from the umpires, the call was overturned and the run scored for UWF and a 1-0. Crandall was deemed in the way of Garcia reaching the plate.
The lead was short lived, however, as leadoff hitter M. Hill took a 2-2 pitch from UWF hurler Grace Gilbert deep to left field for her 19th home run of the season and a 1-1 score. That was M. Hill's second leadoff home run of the regional this weekend. The home run gave VSU a national-leading 102 dingers for the season tying for sixth all-time in NCAA Division II for home runs in a season (Lenoir-Ryne, 2010). It also marked the seventh time this season M. Hill has began the game with a leadoff home run.
UWF's Teala Howard began the top of the third with a double to the gap and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt. Jacquelynne Poling singled through the middle for an RBI and a 2-1 lead. Richards got her first strikeout of the day for the third out preventing further damage.
Gilbert retired the Blazers in order for the fourth-straight inning in the fifth and had retired 15-straight since the leadoff home run from M. Hill. In the top of the sixth, Richards had two outs and a 1-2 count on Mallroy Vining, but she laced a single to left as UWF continued its streak of a base runner in every inning. Madliynne Webb singled through the left side on an 0-2 count for two on. Richards got a fly out to left to get out of the inning as VSU had six outs left to work with to continue its season.
Kelsey Sweatt relieved Gilbert to begin the bottom of the sixth and this proved to be the inning where everything changed. Gibert went five innings and was masterful, allowing one hit, one earned run, walked none and fanned two, while retiring the last 15 Blazers.
Sweatt walked junior Baylee Everson for the Blazers' first base runner since the first inning home run. Meadows came up with a single over shortstop for two on and nobody out in the bottom of the sixth. A sacrifice bunt from M. Hill put runners at second and third with one out. Pennington fought back from an 0-2 count to a 3-2 count. With both fan bases going crazy, Pennington hit a towering shot just foul down the left field line on the 14th pitch of the at bat and then hit a two RBI triple to right center for a 3-2 VSU lead. Senior Logan Hill hit a sacrifice fly to left, plating freshman pinch-runner Kayla Tosone for a 4-2 lead.
Richards and the Blazers retired the first two batters of the seventh and Poling had a good fight in her at bat reaching a full count. Poling got the free pass as it was Richards' first walk since May 2. The Blazers got a pop out to second to end the game and force the "if necessary" game.
In the opener, VSU had four runs on three hits as Pennington was 1 for 3 with two RBI and the triple, while M. Hill was 1 for 2. With a run scored and a home run. Meadows had the big hit in the sixth and scored on the Pennington 3-bagger. Richards went all seven innings, allowing eight hits, two runs – one earned, walked one and fanned one in 123 pitches. Sweatt (16-4) took the loss in relief, going one inning, allowing two hits, three earned runs and walked one.
#9 Valdosta State 6, West Florida 4 (Regional Championship Game Two)
Playing as the visitors in the second game, Pennington continued her strong play with a solo home run to left field off Sweatt in the top of the first inning for her national-leading 24th home run of the season, tying her for third all-time in GSC history in home runs in a season and third in VSU history.
VSU senior Avery Lamb got the start in the circle for game two and fanned Howard to begin the game and retired the Argos in order, marking the first time today in either game UWF went down in order in a frame. It was Lamb's second start of the season (Albany State, Mar. 17).
In the second, a walk to Gano and an error on Sweatt put two on with nobody out on a sacrifice bunt attempt from freshman Taylor Macera. Crandall put the runners in position with a sacrifice bunt. A sacrifice fly from freshman pinch-hitter Katie Proctor scored a run and a walk put runners at the corners for the top of the order. Sweatt and the Argos got out of the jam as it marked the first two base runners VSU had stranded in either game today.
With one on and nobody out in the bottom of the second, Kara Wilson went deep to center field, tying the score at 2-2. The Blazers turned the 543 double play to get out of the inning. Pennington walked to begin the top of the second and moved to third on a passed ball and sacrifice bunt with two out. Sweatt walked Gano on four pitches for runners at the corners. On a 1-2 count with two out, Macera took Sweatt deep for a three run home run and a 5-2 lead for her third home run of the season. Crandall followed suite, also on a 1-2 count, for her 11th home run of the season and a 6-2 lead. Sweatt was replaced on the mound by Montana Young.
A bunt single from Howard and a single from Garcia put two on base and then Poling hit a two RBI single up the middle cutting the VSU lead to 6-4. VSU went to the bullpen in favor of Richards, replacing Lamb. Merrill singled to center and moved to second on the throw. On a 1-2 count with two out, Richards fanned Courtney McClellan to get out of the jam.
A pair of singles from junior Baylee Everson and Meadows began the top of the sixth for the Blazers. The Argos got a fielder's choice and a strikeout for two away. Young walked L. Hill to load the bases. UWF got out of the jam with a pop to short as the Blazers left the bags full.
The Argos put two on with one out in the bottom of the sixth for pinch-hitter Brett Leiva who flied out to right. but the Blazers made one of the best defensive plays of the season, gunning Kara Wilson down at the plate for the third out of the inning.
In their final at, Richards retired the Argos in order as Pennington caught the final out on a pop up to shortstop.
VSU (38-9) scored six runs on five hits with one error, while UWF (33-16) had four runs on eight hits and one error. No Blazer had multiple hits, but each of the five hits were timely, including three home runs. Wilson went 2 for 3 with a run scored and two RBI on the home run for the Argos and Macera was 1 for 3 with a run scored and three RBI for the Blazers on the home run.
Lamb went 2.1 innings, allowing five hits, four earned runs, walked none and fanned one. Richards (27-6) went 4.2 innings, allowing three hits of scoreless baseball and fanned two. Sweatt (16-5) took the second loss of the day in 2.2 innings, allowing three hits, six runs – five earned, walked four and fanned one.