May 27, 2010

By Bo Allegrucci
Special to

ST. JOSEPH, MO -- With Valdosta State leading Bloomsburg by seven runs heading into the seventh inning Thursday, no one at the Heritage Park Softball Complex thought they'd be holding their breath when Bloomsburg sophomore Sam Pientack lofted a high fly ball towards the short left-field corner in her team's final at-bat.

But before Pientack got to the plate, Bloomsburg had stunningly produced six of their eight hits in the top of the seventh and scored five runs. When Pientack got to the plate with two outs and a runner on second, the score was 7-5. Then Pientack got a hold of a high fastball from Valdosta State reliever Margaret Carter. Fans behind each dugout rose in a collective gasp, but the ball hooked high and left before it passed over the 190-foot sign below the left-field foul pole. Everyone exhaled and sat back down, but Pientack poked another would-be homer foul over that same left field corner before lining out sharply to centerfield to end the game.

Only then did Valdosta State secure a 7-5 victory in the opening round of the Division II softball championships, setting up an all-Georgia second-round game against undefeated and top-ranked North Georgia, which beat Molloy, 4-0, earlier in the day. Valdosta State and North Georgia will play Friday at 4 p.m.

"That kid's a great hitter and she leads their team with eight home runs ... that's who I didn't want up in that spot," Valdosta State coach Thomas Macera said of Pientack. "Margaret actually hit some good spots, and the balls she (Pientack) hit were on the corner. If they'd been down the middle we'd still be playing."

Bloomsburg coach Jan Hutchinson, who is retiring after the tournament and is looking for a her second national championship this school year, after leading the Huskies' women's field hockey team to the Division II title this fall, must now earn her historic softball crown from the loser's bracket.

"Clearly we came out strung as tight as can be, and we didn't loosen up 'til the seventh inning for whatever reason," Hutchinson said. "This was not the team today that we've been during the last few weeks. I think sometimes when you put 'NCAA Championship' on the fence, some players tense up and try too hard."

And apparently, Valdosta State really likes hitting with two outs, otherwise Bloomsburg pitcher Shavaun Fisher might have fired a gem Thursday.

With less than two outs, Fisher allowed just four hits and struck out three in 4 2/3 innings. Valdosta State, however, went 6-for-11 with three homeruns and five RBI whenever the scoreboard had two bulbs lit under 'OUTS'.

"We hit, that's what got us here," Macera said. "We have good pitching and good defense, no doubt about it, but everyone in our lineup can hit. It doesn't just have to be just three hitters or an All-American catcher who has to carry us on offense."

Bloomsburg scored the game's first run with a two-out rally in their first at-bat. Marti Littlefield walked on four pitches and scored after back-to-back singles by Alyssa Shirey and Stephanie Carlson, who were later stranded.

Carlson came up clutch again with two outs in the bottom of the third, scorching a single through Fisher's legs into centerfield to score Morgan Johnson, who had already clanked a one-out double off the fence in right centerfield.

The Blazers doubled their lead to 4-0 with Melessa Jackson's two-run home run in the fourth and tripled it to 6-0 with Sarah Vaughn's two-out, two-run homer in the fifth.

Littlefield lined a solo shot off Bloomsburg reliever Caitlin Paine -- with two-outs, of course -- in the bottom of the sixth to make it 7-0, but the Bloomsburg offense was saving its best for last.

"Bloomsburg's a great team, and they're here for a reason," Macera said. "We knew they weren't going lie down and quit, and I told our team it was going to be a seven-inning game."

With one out in the seventh, the Huskies got themselves on the board with four straight singles against Valdosta State starter Holly Satterfield, who had allowed only four base runners through the first six innings.

With two outs, Bloomsburg got a two-run single from Danielle Lazorka and a two-run double from Lacy Mauro to close the gap to 7-5 and chase Satterfield. Carter -- who started half the Blazer games this season alongside Satterfield -- needed just one out to end the drama, but Pientack's long foul balls and hard line-out made Valdosta State sweat even more before it was over.

"Where's the wind when we need it?" asked Mauro, Bloomsburg's junior catcher who was rounding second each time Pientack's long-ball drifted foul.

"We had a lot of hard hits today, but they just didn't get down," Hutchinson said. "If that ball stays fair in the seventh we've got a whole new game on our hands."