Tufts' fifth-inning outburst solidifies program's first national championship
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. -- For the first time in program history, Tufts took home the NCAA Division III national championship trophy, winning its back-and-forth title game against Cortland State 6-5.
“It’s a little surreal,” Tufts coach Cheryl Milligan said. “It hasn’t really hit.”
The Jumbos cruised through the first three rounds with efficient play in all aspects of the game. They outscored their opponents 15-1 without committing an error and only trailing for a half inning during the tournament.
This changed with a swing of the bat as Cortland’s Diane Cork led off the game with a solo shot to left field. The Red Dragons were fresh off an emotional finish, overcoming a four-run deficit in the final inning against Salisbury to reach the championship.
In unfamiliar territory, the Jumbos overcame multiple deficits to earn their first championship.
“We talked about trying to break momentum ... and come out strong and not let [Cortland’s] momentum carry over,” Milligan said.
Junior catcher Jo Clair evened the game in the bottom of the first on a homer to left field. She ended her season with a 2-for-4 performance, a pair of runs scored and one RBI.
Sophomore Kris Parr gave Tufts its first lead of the game with a long solo shot in the bottom of the second. Parr finished 2-for-3 with a run and RBI.
In the first three games, the Jumbos used small ball to manufacture runs. After the first two runs of Monday's finale were manufactured via the long ball, Tufts got back to its small ball mentality. In the bottom of the third, Bri Keenan was hit by the pitch with one out, followed by a Clair double to put runners on second and third. A wild pitch brought home Keenan to give the Jumbos a 3-1 lead.
Up 3-1 after three innings, Cortland stormed back just as it had done all week. Scoring a run in the fourth and hanging a three-spot in the fifth, the Red Dragons led 5-3 and were nine outs away from extending the tournament another day.
“We have all the faith in the world in [Allyson Fournier],” Milligan said. “We’ve never seen her give up five earned runs in a game. That was a testament to how badly the other side wanted it.”
The theme of each team this week was a one game at a time and one inning at a time approach. Tufts kept in the moment and stuck with this theme by answering in the bottom half of the fifth, matching the Red Dragons' three runs to recapture the lead 6-5.
Following a free pass to Keenan, Clair reached on an error and sophomore Michelle Cooprider cleared the bases to even the score with a two-run double.
“The other two at-bats I had, she beat me inside,” Cooprider said. “I went in there expecting her to throw inside and I went right after it, instead of waiting for her to go outside.”
Gracie Marshall then brought home Cooprider, which proved to be the championship-winning run as the Jumbos went ahead 6-5.
Fournier was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player as she earned four victories. Through the first three days, she had allowed just one run in 22 innings, surrendering just 12 hits. Cortland put up season-highs on the Jumbos ace with five runs and 12 hits. In crunch time, Fournier pulled through again, holding down the Red Dragons' offense scoreless in the last two frames to earn her 25th win of the season.
“After we gave up that three spot, I said [to Fournier], ‘I have confidence in you and I know you can do this. I know you can pull through and be the champion I know you are.’” Clair said.
Fournier retired the final five batters of the game and finished the season by forcing a routine ground ball to third baseman Christina Raso. Raso made the play and fired a one-hopper to Parr, who made the dig.
“I could not be prouder,” Milligan said. "We have four seniors on this team. They made this happen and I couldn’t be prouder of the roles they played.”
Tufts proudly displayed team shirts throughout the course of the season with a single word on the back... “Expecting.” With Milligan expecting a child in August, the Jumbos supported their coach while using the same term to describe their drive and expectations for a national title.
“We’re getting a dog and a baby,” said Cooprider, referring to a team agreement in which Tufts made about getting a team dog if it won the national championship.
“We’re definitely getting a baby,” Milligan said. “We’ll have to work on the dog thing.”