Facing a pair of teams on Friday that won a combined 79 games last season , the Valparaiso softball team was unable to come out with a victory on its opening day from the Mercer Invitational in Macon, Ga. The Crusaders fell victim to a pair of seventh-inning runs in a 5-4 loss to Jacksonville State in the opener, and despite extending the game once, Valpo dropped a 12-4, six-inning run-rule decision to host Mercer in the nightcap.
“I was happy with our hitting for the most part today – our bats definitely kept us in the first game, and we swung the bat like we’ve been swinging it all month – I was glad that translated over to game action,” said Crusader head coach Kate Stake. “We hit pretty well with runners in scoring position, and defensively, I thought we were pretty solid as well. We also were pretty resilient when we made mistakes; we didn’t let them hurt us too often.”
The Crusaders opened the 2015 campaign, Stake’s first at the helm of the program, against last season’s OVC champion in Jacksonville State, and it was the Gamecocks who struck first with a pair of RBI doubles in the second inning to take a 2-0 lead. But Valpo would answer in the bottom of the third, starting with back-to-back singles to lead off the inning from sophomores Jorgi Calombaris (Frankfort, Ill./Lincoln-Way East) and Taylor Lawson (Tucson, Ariz./Sahuaro). Junior Kaitlyn Ranieri (Schererville, Ind./Lake Central) followed with an RBI single to get the Crusaders on the board, and a sacrifice fly by senior Tarah McShane (Streamwood, Ill./St. Edward) tied the game at 2-2.
Calombaris came up with a big hit for the second time in as many innings in the bottom of the fourth, as her two-out, 0-2 count RBI single drove home freshman Stephanie Moreno (Murrieta, Calif./Murrieta Valley), who opened the frame with an 0-2 single of her own. Then, after Jacksonville State knotted the game at 3-3 with a two-out RBI single, a pair of Crusader freshmen responded in the bottom half of the sixth. Brenna Boyle (St. John, Ind./Andrean) singled with one out and stole second to get into scoring position, and Moreno followed with a full-count double to left-center after fouling off five pitches to drive home Boyle and make it 4-3 Valpo.
But the Gamecocks would put the final, decisive tallies on the scoreboard, taking advantage of four straight walks in the top of the seventh to tie the game at 4-4, and Savannah Sloan delivered a one-out, bases-loaded sacrifice fly for the eventual game-winning RBI. Lawson led off the bottom of the seventh with a single to keep the Crusaders alive, and a base knock by McShane put runners on the corners with one out, but a double-play ball closed out the game.
Moreno went 3-for-3 to lead the Crusaders in her collegiate debut, while Calombaris and Lawson also picked up two hits apiece against the Gamecocks. Jacksonville State (2-0) got a 3-for-3 day from Melanie Steer, and Jamie McGuire drew three walks for the Gamecocks. Taylor Weissenhofer took the loss for Valpo, falling to 0-1 on the year, after surrendering all five runs in 6.1 innings while striking out five. Logan Green improved to 1-0 for Jacksonville State, earning the win with 4.2 innings of relief work.
“Regardless of the outcome of the game, I was going to be happy with it,” said Stake. “Obviously, you want to win every game, but that was one of those games that you walk away from with a lot of information. There were a number of lead changes, but our players just kept fighting, and didn't think they were overmatched. We played well against a pretty good Jacksonville State team, but in the end, just gave them too many free bases.”
The nightcap against Mercer was not nearly as tight, as the Bears scored 11 runs over a three-inning span to take control. But with a run-rule loss seemingly in the cards, the Crusaders would respond with a flurry of freshmen. The first five batters of the top of the fifth were all rookies, and all five tallied base hits in their quest to keep the game going. Moreno led off the frame with a single and later scored on a wild pitch, and three batters later, Boyle knocked in both Jenna Stauffenberg (Kankakee, Ill./Bishop McNamara) and Lanie Callaghan (Elburn, Ill./Kaneland) with a single up the middle. Two batters later, an RBI groundout from Calombaris plated Boyle, cutting the deficit to 11-4 and keeping the game alive.
Freshman Ashlyn Montgomery (Lebanon, Ind./Lebanon), who entered the game in relief in the circle and picked up one of the base hits in the top half of the fifth, faced runners on second and third with nobody out in the bottom of the inning. But with one run separating the Crusaders from a run-rule loss, Montgomery induced a pop-up, registered a strikeout and then got a groundout to send the game to the sixth inning. Mercer would end the game in the bottom of the sixth, however, on an RBI bunt single by Jastine Alaan.
“I was really happy with the freshmen’s performance across the board today,” said Stake. “Steph had a big game in the first game and was the underclassman leader that we needed – she came up big, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Then in the second game, Ashlyn came in and did what we asked her to do – she kept the ball down and fed the defense. On offense, we got to play another inning because our freshmen stepped up against a team that was ready to shut the door on us. Certainly, I wasn’t happy with the score of the second game, we didn’t play that well – but our freshmen put something together and competed – we were able to accomplish a short-term goal of keeping the game alive and play another inning.”
Seven different Crusaders registered hits in the nightcap, while McShane would reach base twice. Riley Carter led Mercer (2-0), going 3-for-4 with three runs scored. Junior Mollie Lindeman (Hebron, Ind./Hebron [PNC]) took the loss for Valpo, falling to 0-1 after going the first 2.1 innings and giving up eight runs, while Kirsten Stevens improved to 1-0 for the Bears, striking out seven in her five innings of work.
Valparaiso (0-2) looks to earn its first win of the season on Saturday. The Crusaders will take the field twice, opening the day against IPFW at 9 a.m. CT. Valpo then begins bracket play that afternoon, with its game time being determined following the end of round-robin play.
“It’s a bit of a quick turnaround tomorrow, coming out and playing the first game tomorrow,” said Stake. “I want us to come out and try to score early, to get on base early and make things happen. We got away from that a bit against Mercer, and I want us to try to get on the board first tomorrow, to play from ahead and give our pitchers a cushion.”