TWU’s outfield fence at Pioneer Field is getting a little crowded.
On Saturday, the Pioneers found out they are going to need more room for at least one more banner when they neutralized St. Edward’s to three hits for the second straight game in a 3-0 victory on the back of junior pitcher Brandie Lander’s three-hitter. Coupled with its 4-1 win on Friday, TWU took the NCAA South Central Super Regional to advance to the NCAA Division II Women’s Softball Championship in Salem, Va., beginning Thursday.
For the Pioneers (51-12), it’s been a long, battle-tested journey to get to the position they’re in. The regular season wound down with a tense showdown between the Lone Star Conference’s top two teams in TWU and West Texas-A&M.
On April 26, TWU lost the first game of the series by the slimmest of margins in a 2-1 loss in nine innings. Since then, the Pioneers have rattled off 10 straight wins to advance to the school’s first national tournament as a team in any sport. Along the way, the Pioneers won the LSC regular-season title, the LSC tournament and the NCAA South Central Regional 1 championship, as well as the South Central Super Regional over the Hilltoppers (33-23).
“We talked this week about [how] leadership is going to win it,” TWU head coach Richie Bruister said. “They played together out there. It was extremely tough conditions to play with so much at stake. “When you’ve worked so hard all season, and to go out there and play flawlessly, it’s absolutely amazing.”
The Pioneers saw an influx of new blood this season into their single, team heart, and Saturday was the showcase as Lander and Haley Colwell, two junior college transfers, were on their games.
Lander paced the Pioneers from the circle with six strikeouts, while Colwell continued her series hot streak with a solo home run in the third inning to provide her team with a touch more breathing room — room they would never need.
Junior Katie Hines, who has played in every game for the Pioneers in the past three seasons, has seen how well the new players have fit in this season.
“I feel like everybody came in and meshed well together as a team,” Hines said. “Brandie has been doing a great job pitching. She got LSC pitcher of the year and that’s not an easy thing to do. Haley is over here knocking in RBIs and home runs and doing a great job in right field. Every player has played a role to get us here.”
After Larisa Garcia led the Pioneers to a 4-1 victory on Friday, TWU turned to Lander (22-6), their team leader in wins this season, needing just one win to advance.
“I think it’s just been really great to come into a team that respects you,” Lander said. “You obviously have to earn your spot, but they aren’t going to not include you. I did for a little bit, feel like I had something to prove because I walked on and tried out. I guess everything kind of fell into place, and ever since then I’ve trusted them and they’ve trusted me.”
Bruister echoed Hines’ sentiments and credited the newcomers for their dedication and cohesion.
“You can have a lot of talent on the team, but if you don’t have team chemistry and you don’t have players that want to be around each other, you’re not going to go very far. We knew very early that it was going to be that way. The new folks bought into the system because that’s hard for them, too. They have to come into a new philosophy.”
The Pioneers opened up the scoring in the first inning with Hines’ RBI single to center field that scored Amanda Ruiz, another junior college addition to this season.
Following the near instant offense in the top of the first, Lander began to work the strike zone, including two strikeouts in the second inning after allowing a leadoff single.
“I was probably calmer than I’ve been all year, and I know that’s weird to say, but when we scored that run in the first inning, I had no doubt from there that we were going to win it because we wanted it,” Lander said. “We were on top of it from the very beginning.”
After Colwell’s home run to left-center field in the third inning put TWU ahead 2-0, the Pioneers added another run in the sixth inning after Bailey Vrazel led off the inning with an infield hit and stole second to set up Ruiz for the sacrifice bunt as she was able to reach on St. Edward’s throwing error.
The victory set the remaining members’ minds from last season’s team at ease as the Pioneers were happy to get revenge on the Hilltoppers — the team that eliminated them in the regionals last season.
“There is a satisfaction to it,” Hines said. “Anybody that was on the team last year did not forget that we lost to St. Edward’s in regionals last year. Trust me, we all remember that like it was yesterday. We used that to our advantage”
The Pioneers will travel to Virginia for nationals, where they will face West Super Region Champion Humboldt State in the opening round of the eight-team double elimination tournament at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the James I. Moyer Sports Complex. The tournament runs through May 27.
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.
TWU 3, St. Edward’s 0
TWU 101 001 0 — 3 5 1
St. Edward’s 000 000 0 — 0 3 1
WP — Brandie Lander (22-6). LP — Katelyn Klug (7-10). HR — T: Haley Colwell.