TWU’s first inside-the-park grand slam over the weekend was an exciting mix of a perfectly placed hit, a temporary outfield fence, a gutsy call by the head coach and Bailey Vrazel’s record-setting speed.
Combined, it turned out to be one for the record books: Vrazel’s first career homer and the first inside-the-park grand slam in school history.
It was also one highlight of many that the Pioneers (10-4) enjoyed at the three-day, 18-team National Fastpitch Coaches Association Leadoff Classic in Tucson, Ariz. TWU breezed through pool play and went 5-1 for the tournament to finish in third place.
“It was a great weekend,” coach Richie Bruister said.
Vrazel’s grand slam came in the bottom of the first inning of TWU’s Friday opener against Regis, an inning ended with TWU leading 5-3.
It started with Vrazel’s line drive over first base, bending slightly toward foul territory and landing about six inches inside the foul line.
“The good thing is it stayed inside the line,” Bruister said. “If it had gone another six inches to the right, it’d have landed in foul territory.”
The ball rolled to the temporary outfield fence. The game was played on a slow-pitch field with a chain-link fence at 300 feet. A plastic fence had been placed at the standard fast-pitch distance of 210 feet. If the ball had rolled into a gap between the temporary fence and the wall in foul territory, the play would have ruled dead as a ground-rule double. The ball stayed fair and rolled into the plastic fence.
“When the right fielder got to the ball, the ball didn’t bounce off the fence like she probably expected,” Bruister said. “It kind of rolled up the fence. She had to take an extra step before she could get the ball and throw it back in.”
By that time, Vrazel, who led all NCAA divisions in stolen bases the past two years, had rounded second base. It was then up to Bruister, handling his usual third base coaching duties, whether to send her home or hold her at third.
“I had a split decision to make at that point,” he said. “But I never hesitated. We got the chance when I saw the ball hold up in the fence, so I said let’s take a chance.”
Vrazel scored standing up on a play that was never close. And the Pioneers, rallying behind outstanding relief pitching from Brandie Lander, who struck out five of six in the last two innings, claimed an 11-10 victory.
TWU heads to Austin this weekend for the St. Edward’s tournament. The Pioneers will play four games, facing both the host and Texas A&M-International on Saturday and Sunday.
Skid reaches six games
Mired in a six-game losing streak, the Pioneers are trying to figure out how to hold on to leads, which they’ve had in four of those losses.
“We get up on teams and we can’t put them away,” coach Beth Jillson said. “We’ve got to be more confident when we have the lead and focus and finish the game.”
Last week’s two home games exemplified the Pioneers’ struggles. In a four-point loss to West Texas A&M, the Pioneers led by 12 points before stumbling down the stretch. On Saturday against Eastern New Mexico, a four-point lead evaporated over the final 16 minutes of regulation before TWU fell by two in overtime.
Last month, the Pioneers (6-16, 4-12 Lone Star) built a five-point lead at Tarleton State midway through the second half but wound up falling 71-69. On Jan. 30 against visiting Texas A&M-Commerce, TWU led by eight with 10:54 remaining only to lose 54-50.
“Sometimes I think we lose patience on the offensive end,” Jillson said. “And I think we lose focus. On the offensive end we take quick shots, and defensively we get a little lax. And sometimes it looks like we get a little tight.”
Last week’s two losses were especially damaging for the Pioneers as they dropped to ninth place in the conference standings — one spot out of the final berth in the Lone Star tournament.
Free “Pioneer Nation” T-shirts will be given to the first 200 fans attending Saturday’s 2 p.m. home game against Angelo State.
In TWU’s last two games, sophomore forward Ria Pateraki has emerged as a force on both ends of the court.
Against West Texas A&M and Eastern New Mexico, the 6-1 native of Greece registered back-to-back career scoring highs while grabbing a combined 13 rebounds.
“She’s been so much more decisive,” Jillson said. “She’s looking to score and at the same time, she’s taking better care of the ball.”
Pateraki scored 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting — and 3-for-3 on 3-pointers — against the Lady Buffs. Her seven rebounds led the Pioneers. On Saturday against the Zias, she connected on eight of 11 field goals for a new career high of 22 points to go with six rebounds.
Pateraki leads TWU in rebounding with a 5.9 average and is third on the team at 8.4 points per game.
Home sweet home
The Pioneers are preparing for their final two home meets of the season as they try to reach preseason goals of qualifying for NCAA regionals and competing for a USAG national title.
“We get to be at home for our next two meets, so if we can show some consistency, I think that will set us up for a great end of the season and the postseason,” coach Lisa Bowerman said. “This weekend is definitely key for us. We have to turn the corner this weekend.”
On Sunday, TWU will entertain Air Force, Centenary and Illinois-Chicago at 2 p.m. at Kitty Magee Arena. On March 1, the Pioneers will host No. 2 Oklahoma at 7 p.m.
A frustrating season continued over the weekend when the Pioneers, despite a season-best score of 48.325 on bars, finished fourth at OU’s four-team Bart Conner Perfect 10 Challenge.
“If we don’t make the turn this weekend, it’s going to be really tough to hit just at the right time at [USAG] nationals,” Bowerman said. “And as far as [NCAA] regionals go, it’s still statistically possible but we’ll have to be pretty outstanding the rest of the season.”
Inconsistency continued to hamper the Pioneers in Oklahoma City as they finished with a team score of 191.425, well behind third-place BYU’s 194.175.
Free clinic for youths
The Pioneer coaches and gymnasts will conduct a free, one-hour youth clinic immediately following Sunday’s meet. The clinic will be open to boys and girls in eighth grade and below.
Registration will be held Sunday in the Kitty Magee lobby. Participants, who will receive free admission to the meet, must have a registration form and liability waiver completed by a parent or guardian before the clinic.