SALEM, Va. — This season’s TWU softball team put the program and school on the map with its magical run to the NCAA Division II national tournament, racking up championships and a bevy of awards and broken records along the way.
In the Pioneers’ second game of the tournament against No. 9 Grand Valley State on Saturday, they showed the mettle and resolve, just as they have done all season, to answer a five-run deficit.
Senior Jordan Readicker put the Pioneers back into the conversation with a three-run home run in the sixth inning. But the Lakers responded with three more runs in the top of the seventh and navigated their way out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the bottom of the inning to secure an 8-4 victory, eliminating TWU from contention and ending its season at 51-14.
“One of my goals as a coach is to always have a chance to tie or to win the game and bring that runner up to the plate,” TWU coach Richie Bruister said. “There is no quit in them, and to see them go down five and against all odds, we had an opportunity today, even down five [runs] like that, so I’m extremely proud of the girls.”
The sixth-ranked Pioneers sent Brandie Lander to the circle, and she worked around a leadoff walk to start the game to get out of the first unscathed. In the bottom half, the Pioneers looked as if they weren’t going to wait until the later stages to get on the board, but they couldn’t score with the bases loaded and one out as Lizzy Kelly hit into a double play to end the inning.
“We put pressure on their defense and put runners on, and their pitcher made pitches,” Bruister said of Hannah Santora, who came into the game with a 26-5 record. “She threw in on our hands and jammed us. We worked before the game on that particular pitch and until you see it, it’s hard.”
The Lakers (45-8) burst Lander’s hitless bubble with Emily Holt’s single finding the shallow pocket in center field to lead off the third inning. Lander battled back to get the next two outs, but Holt was moved over to second base on a sacrifice to set up Briauna Taylor for a hard-hit RBI single up the middle and off Bailey Vrazel’s outstretched glove to put the Lakers on the board 1-0.
The top of the fourth inning was nearly a carbon copy of the third, as Kayleigh Bertram singled to shallow center on a ball that the oncoming Amanda Ruiz barely missed on a diving attempt as the ball just popped out of her glove. Bertram then advanced to second on an illegal pitch by Lander. After Maggie Kopas struck out, Holt sent a shot to short center field. This time, Ruiz came up with a diving catch as she laid her entire body out to make the run-saving snag.
“I think our defense was pretty spot on,” Ruiz said. “The other team hit the ball, but it wasn’t anything our defense couldn’t handle. We stayed in there and stayed strong. I did as much as I could to hold it down.”
Lander began the fifth inning with her third strikeout of the game, but with the top of the order at the plate, the Lakers strung together four straight hits. Nellie Kosola singled inside the left-field line and Taylor also singled through the left infield to prime the plate for Katie Martin, the Lakers’ top RBI hitter and leader in home runs with 20.
After Bruister decided to intentionally walk Martin in the first inning, he couldn’t repeat that strategy with two aboard, and she ripped a double down the left-field line to score two runs and put the Lakers up 3-0.
“That was a missed pitch,” Bruister said. “We were trying to throw a change-up off the plate and [Lander] got it over the plate, and [Martin] hit a double down the line. Change-ups sometimes are hard to control, and [Lander] just got it up. The girl [Martin] did her job and kept it fair.”
With Martin aboard, cleanup hitter Emily Jones used the gusting winds to creep her seventh home run of the season over the right-field fence to give the Lakers a 5-0 cushion and chase Lander from the game in favor of Larisa Garcia.
“Our pitching staff and those two are the ones that have gotten us here,” Bruister said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here. It’s a tough spot. Nobody has been at this level, and I’m proud they did their best. That’s all I can ask for.”
The Pioneers wouldn’t go down without a fight, though, as Ruiz singled to lead off the sixth inning and Katie Hines walked, setting up Readicker’s 22nd home run of the season in her last at-bat as a Pioneer.
“As soon as it was off the bat, I knew it was over the left fielder this time and I was proud to bring home runs for TWU,” Readicker said. “There’s no better way to go out and I’m glad that’s how it was. I’ve loved my four years here and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Taylor led off the seventh by reaching on an error off a long flyball to right field that Haley Colwell couldn’t track down in the wind, allowing her to move to third base. After two straight walks, Miranda Cleary’s infield hit put the Lakers up 6-3. Kayleigh Bertram’s infield hit scored another run and a fielder’s choice put Grand Valley State ahead 8-3.
With the Pioneers staring defeat in the face, they were still able to muster three straight hits to lead off the final inning, and Ruiz walked to make it 8-4.
“To be honest, a little tear came to my eye because of the whole season,” Bruister said. “[Ashley] Maddox gets a hit and then [Haley] Colwell got a hit, and I’m like, this is just amazing. Everything running through me was like, ‘Wow! Here we go again.’”
But the Pioneers couldn’t add any more as their season came to an end.
Readicker said she was happy to look back and see the impact she and the other seniors — Kelly, Garcia and Karissa Hartwig — had on a program that advanced to nationals for the first time in school history in any sport.
“I’m happy to say I was a part of it,” Readicker said. “Me and Lizzy Kelly have been here for four years, and it’s been phenomenal to see the changes that we’ve made throughout the four years. It’s great that we left such a mark on TWU and athletics.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.
Grand Valley State 8, TWU 4
WP — Hannah Santora (26-4). LP —Brandie Lander (22-7). 2B — G: Katie Martin. HR — T: Jordan Readicker. G: Emily Jones.