SALEM, Va. — UC-San Diego dusted off its cleats on Sunday, after a couple of wins earlier in the finals that earned the squad a day off. With the run that the Tritons have been on, the day off probably wouldn’t have mattered one way or another, as they were the only team to advance to finals unbeaten in NCAA tournament play and continue to hold a zero in the loss column Sunday afternoon.
The Tritons never fell behind in their 2-1 win against Saginaw Valley, with the Cardinals scoring their lone run behind Jill Peterson’s bat with a home run in the bottom of the seventh.
“I’m just so proud of my girls,” UC-San Diego coach Patti Gerckens said. “They’re playing hard, and they’re playing tough. People are coming up big that haven’t in a while and our defense is holding tight so I am happy about that.”
Experience hasn’t mattered to the Tritons. Not only is this the program’s first trip to the NCAA Division II Softball Championship finals, but they have a host of young talent with 10 freshmen and two sophomores on the roster of 20. Of the 10 freshmen, five have been consistent go-to players this season.
“[The freshmen have] been making contributions all year long,” Gerckens said. “They are a great bunch. They know how to compete. They are stepping up at a time that a lot of times is a little bit scary. But they aren’t looking at it that way. They are stepping up like they are seniors.”
Freshman catcher Charly Swanberg was vital in the Tritons’ win both offensively and defensively. Twice Swanberg picked off runners with her speedy gun behind the plate to finish innings and eliminate runners who potentially could have flipped the game in the Cardinals’ favor.
“I just wanted to play for my team,” Swanberg said. “I gave it basically everything I had. Nothing less. Before this game we only had two games before the end of the season. This is the time to lay it on the field. Go big or go home.”
It’s down to the final game of the season for the freshmen and the rest of the UC-San Diego squad, and for the seniors it’s the last game in a Triton uniform win or lose.
“I just keep talking about playing our game,” senior second baseman Jennifer De Fazio said. “We have been doing this all year and we just want to stay focused. We say between every inning, this inning is the most important inning of this game of our season. We just keep our routine the same and don’t change a thing.”
There’s no better way to go out than on the biggest stage in Division II softball, as UCSD is set to face Alabama-Huntsville to battle for the national championship. And the Tritons hope to head home the way they came in – as the only undefeated team in the NCAA tournament.
Best of the Day
UC-San Diego’s Camille Gaito pitched her way to 12 strikeouts to tie her season high. Gaito has thrown 23 K’s in the finals through Sunday.
Stephanie Needham sent another homer sailing on Sunday in Alabama-Huntsville’s 2-0 shutout of Midwestern State. The home run accounted for her third of the finals, and her 10th of the season.
Alabama-Huntsville’s Alex Lewis, the nation’s top closer, stepped to the mound in the top of the sixth inning and it was all over from there. Lewis struck out the first batter she faced, then fielded a grounder up the middle, threw to second, and the second baseman was able to send it to first in time for the double play. The energy carried to their next at-bat, scoring another run to extend the Chargers’ cushion to 2-0.
• Both UC-San Diego’s Camille Gaito and Saginaw Valley’s Jade Fulton have tossed every inning in NCAA tournament play.
• UC-San Diego was the best team of the finals to go against Saginaw Valley’s Jade Fulton as the Tritons rallied off nine hits. Prior to Sunday, Fulton had only allowed 11 hits total in the finals.
• Midwestern State coach Brady Tigert saw his squad finish with 108 wins during the past two seasons, the most in the NCAA.
• Alex Lewis of Alabama-Huntsville, the nation’s top closer, added another save to her tally which now stands at 15. She holds the NCAA record for saves in a season and in her career.