The Valparaiso softball team captured its first victory of the year Saturday morning at the Mercer Invitational in Macon, Ga., downing IPFW 10-2 via run rule in six innings. The Crusaders rallied from a three-run deficit in the seventh of the nightcap against the host Bears, but fell 5-4 on a walk-off base knock.
Valpo got off to a quick start against the Mastodons, plating a pair of runs in the top of the first inning on four consecutive base hits. Sophomore Taylor Lawson (Tucson, Ariz./Sahuaro) started the run of hits with a one-out single and moved up 60 feet on a base knock from junior Kaitlyn Ranieri (Schererville, Ind./Lake Central). A single on a full-count pitch by senior Tarah McShane (Streamwood, Ill./St. Edward), after fouling off three two-strike pitches, loaded the bases, and freshman Stephanie Moreno (Murrieta, Calif./Murrieta Valley) took advantage, lining the first pitch she saw into left-center for a two-run single to give Valpo a 2-0 lead.
"We did exactly what we talked about, which was getting on the board first," said Crusader head coach Kate Stake. "We did what we needed to do and moved the line. We feel like we're solid 1-thru-9 in the order right now, so there's no pressure to have production from the heart of the order because everybody's doing so well at the plate. Several times today, at different parts of the order, we strung together back-to-back hits. Unfortunately, that cushion for our pitching in the first inning didn't last long, but that's what a cushion is for - and after the first inning, we didn't relinquish the lead again."
IPFW responded in its half of the first with two runs as well to tie things up, and while the Crusaders loaded the bases with two out in the second, they were unable to push the go-ahead run across. Valpo would take control in the top of the third, however, with a rally that started innocuously enough, as junior Mollie Lindeman (Hebron, Ind./Hebron [PNC]) was hit by a pitch with one out and moved up to second on a sacrifice bunt. Junior Sierra Pico (Las Vegas, Nev./Legacy) delivered a two-out single for her first career hit, plating Lindeman to make it 3-2 Valpo.
Turning back to the top of the order, sophomore Jorgi Calombaris (Frankfort, Ill./Lincoln-Way East) kept the inning alive with a single, and Lawson then delivered a double to left-center, scoring both Pico and Calombaris to push the lead to three runs. Two batters later, McShane capped the four-run frame with a base knock back through the middle to bring Lawson across home plate, making it a 6-2 advantage.
Staked to a four-run edge, freshman Ashlyn Montgomery (Lebanon, Ind./Lebanon) escaped from a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the IPFW third and then set the Mastodons down in order in the fourth. Valpo moved to the brink of a run-rule win in the fifth, as Ranieri reached on an error and McShane singled to set the stage for a pinch-hit three-run homer by senior Lindsey Norway (Chicago, Ill./Chicago Christian) – her fourth career long ball. Then, in the top of the sixth, Ranieri took the first pitch she saw with two outs and connected on a solo home run to give Valpo a 10-2 lead. IPFW had a chance to keep the game alive in the bottom of the sixth, putting a runner on third with one out, but Montgomery tallied a pair of strikeouts to close out the win.
"I was really happy with how we continued pushing late, even with the big lead," said Stake. "That has been a keystone of our offense for the first four games - we have continued scoring and continued putting pressure on teams late in games. Even though we were up by seven, we still approached the sixth inning as if we needed one run, and Kat stepped up and did exactly what we needed to do to close out the game."
Lawson and McShane led Valpo’s 14-hit attack against the Mastodons with three hits apiece, while Ranieri went 2-for-3 with two walks as well. Mongtomery went the distance in the circle to earn her first collegiate win, scattering nine hits while striking out six to improve to 1-0 on the year. For IPFW (0-3), starter Kaitlin Kowalski took the loss, her first of the season, as she surrendered six runs in 3.2 innings of work.
"It was a really impressive outing for Ashlyn today, both phyiscally and mentally," said Stake. "She just had great composure out in the circle, and it was awesome to see her win her first game."
At the end of round-robin play, the Crusaders were the third seed with a 1-2 record, meaning they would face host Mercer in the first round of bracket play, as the Bears went 2-1. Mercer, which run-ruled Valpo on Friday, posted three runs in the second on a two-run homer by Riley Carter and an RBI single from Taylor Miller, but those were its only runs of the first four innings, as sophomore Taylor Weissenhofer (Orland Park, Ill./Lockport Township) kept the Bears off the board.
Meanwhile, Valpo was aggressive early on against Mercer starter Kirsten Stevens, but couldn’t come up with a run in the first four innings. The Crusaders finally broke the seal on the scoreboard in the fifth, as Norway led off the inning with a single and eventually scored on an error by the Bears. But Mercer responded in its half of the fifth, scoring on a single and three consecutive walks. Lindeman entered the circle with the bases loaded and two outs in the frame and kept the Bears from adding on to their lead, inducing a lineout to end the inning.
"We definitely wanted to change up our approach a little bit, but honestly, it wasn't talked about much," said Stake on facing Stevens for the second straight day. "It started with Jorgi going up and being aggressive and hacking right away. The team feeds off one another - once one thing is successful for our players, they jump on it and figure it out. We saw that a pitcher that beat us handily the first time we faced her wasn't quite as big a threat this time. We came out, put some good swings together, and even though we didn't score we made some really loud outs those first few innings."
Facing a 4-1 deficit entering the seventh inning, the Crusaders were able to rally. Norway picked up her second leadoff single of the game and moved over to third on a base hit by Pico. Freshman Brenna Boyle (St. John, Ind./Andrean) pinch-hit and delivered an RBI single to cut the Mercer lead to two runs, and Calombaris followed by driving the first pitch she saw to right-center field for a two-run double, tying the game at 4-4. Valpo was unable to take the lead, however, and Mercer would load the bases with one out in the bottom of the inning before Carter recorded a walk-off single.
“Again, a loss is a loss, and we don't like losing,” said Stake. “At some point, losing in one-run games in the seventh inning is going to be heartbreaking. But right now, at this point in the season, it's disappointing, but you also come out of it with a lot of positive takeaways.”
Lawson tallied three hits in the nightcap to lead the Crusaders, her third multi-hit game of the season through just four contests. Norway and Pico also picked up two hits each as Valpo totaled 10 hits for the game. Lindeman took the loss in the circle for the Crusaders, falling to 0-1 as she went 1.2 innings in relief. Stevens registered the complete-game win for Mercer (3-1) to improve to 2-0, striking out six.
"We talked after the game about how some of the little mistakes we made earlier in the game cost us at the end a bit," said Stake. "But we walked away with our heads high after that game - Mercer is a very good team and fought all the way, and we fought right alongside them. I felt like we gave up a little against them yesterday - didn't give them the right kind of Valpo Softball, and today we absolutely did. We showed character and played with heart, and to me that is something we can always control. It was vital that we did that today.”
Valparaiso (1-3) closes out the Mercer Invitational on Sunday with an 11 a.m. CT first pitch against IPFW. Live stats will be available through ValpoAthletics.com.