Time and time again, the TWU Pioneers have delivered the punctual hit to seize control of a game.
Lizzy Kelly came up with a crucial two-run single in the third inning, but in the final game of the NCAA South Central Regional 1 tournament, it was Larisa Garcia’s complete-game, two-hit shutout that bolstered the Pioneers to a 2-0 victory over St. Mary’s on Sunday at Pioneer Field.
“Garcia pitched outstanding,” TWU head coach Richie Bruister said. “She kept them off balance and frustrated their hitters. It was awesome. We got the timely hit and Lizzy Kelly battled with a good at-bat, fought off a good pitch and flared it off into right field for that two-run single.
“We had a lot of emotions, a lot of anxiety and a lot of nervousness going on, so to come out here and play the way we did, I couldn’t be more proud of the character they’ve got.”
The Pioneers bulldozed their way through the regional tournament, holding some of the top offenses in the nation to a combined two runs in three games. Bruister was quick to give credit to his assistant coach Sena Horne.
“There hasn’t been a lot said about her [Horne] this weekend, and I think you have to start there,” Bruister said. “I think we gave up two runs all weekend, which is absolutely outstanding with the offense here. My hat’s off to her and her pitching staff for being ready for these big games.”
The Pioneers won a tight 2-1 game over Incarnate Word on Friday with Garcia on the mound and took the second game on Saturday, 7-1 over Midwestern State, to advance to the final game on Sunday — a game the Pioneers didn’t want to see having to be replayed if they lost.
“That’s the way we needed to do it, and we did it,” Garcia said of the three straight victories. “Especially in a tournament like this with all these great teams, we needed to stay in the winners’ bracket and we knew that. We knew coming out here this weekend that we were going to win every game we play.”
Garcia struck out five Rattlers on the way to her 17th win of the season, and it was in the bottom of the second inning that the game took a turn toward TWU.
The Rattlers managed to load the bases with one out, but Garcia settled in and struck out the next hitter, Laura Benavidez. Then she sent a chilling drop ball that froze batter Nicole Sardelich in her shoes as she looked at strike three to end the inning.
As Garcia walked off the field, she looked at her catcher, Ashley Maddox, and threw her pitching mask and glove to the ground in excitement.
“I just had to go out and do my job,” Garcia said. “I wasn’t trying to get a strikeout. I was trying to get them to ground out [or] pop up, but when the strikeouts come, especially in a situation like that, it’s great for our momentum.”
With Garcia’s enthusiasm taking them out of the treacherous situation in the second, the Pioneers knocked in their only two runs of the game off St. Mary’s starter Emily Brittain, who came into the game sporting a 28-4 record.
Maddox led off the inning by reaching on a catcher’s interference call and Haley Colwell ripped a double off third baseman Sardelich’s glove and into foul territory in left field. That primed the plate for Kelly’s two-run single, which found a dead spot in shallow right field to score pinch runner Megan Leff and Colwell.
“It was a perfect opportunity for me to get the runs in,” Kelly said. “She kept bringing me inside pitches and she got one out on me, so I took it opposite field and it worked out for us right in the gap. I think it will give me momentum going forward, but it’s my attitude and my mentality going into each game [that] doesn’t need to change.”
Kelly came into Sunday’s game hitting .318 and is fifth on the team in RBIs, but she has shuffled around the lineup a bit through the season. Despite the inconsistency, Bruister said he’s always had confidence in her.
“I told Lizzy that she’s our three-hole hitter,” Bruister said. “She’s great at the plate, and she’s come up with huge hits. In this game, people go through slumps, but we’ve had complete confidence with Lizzy and that showed today. She came through for us in a clutch time, and she’s a senior leader.”
Garcia has been in the circle for several of TWU’s memorable games this season as she closed out the regular season against West Texas-A&M as the Pioneers claimed their first conference championship in school history.
She was also in the circle last weekend in Canyon when TWU defeated West Texas A&M 7-2 in the Lone Star Conference tournament championship game. Garcia came on in relief and pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings.
“Honestly, it keeps getting easier and easier,” Garcia said. “They are big games and we’re really confident. We’re solid on offense. We’re solid on defense. We’re solid all the way around. It’s just another game for us.”
The Pioneers will play host to the super regionals at Pioneer Field this Friday and Saturday against St. Edward’s, who won the South Central Regional 2 tournament and also defeated TWU in last season’s regional playoffs.
“It’s what you play all year for,” Bruister said of the opportunity to play host to the super regionals. “We played 58 games to get to host this. We had great fans that came out to bring our team energy, and you couldn’t ask for more to have home-field advantage next weekend.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.
TWU 2, St. Mary’s 0
WP — Larisa Garcia (17-1). LP — Emily Britain (28-5). 2B — T: Haley Colwell.