TAMPA, Fla. -- A pitching dual between Tampa's Julia Morrow and Valdosta State's Brianna Hancock was decided on a wild pitch in the seventh inning, when Fran Johnson scored the game's only run to give the Blazers a 1-0 win versus the Spartans in the South 2 Regional championship game on Sunday afternoon.
Hancock's winning effort was arguably her strongest outing of the year thus far and secured the righty her 22nd win of the season against just five losses. Her final line included seven strikeouts, two walks, and just three hits allowed. The complete game performance marked her 19th of the year, and the shutout served as her seventh this season.
"It's actually a little easier for me to stay focused in a game like that. Sometimes it's harder when you've got a big lead," Hancock said when asked about the challenges of pitching in such a tight contest. "I was completely confident that my team would be able to push one across if I could just keep doing my part to hold them as long as I could."
The win capped off a weekend in which the Blazers went undefeated to earn a berth in their third consecutive South Super Regional tournament next weekend, and was made possible by a continuance of great pitching and strong defense by the red and black throughout the tournament.
"I never expect to get every out in the circle, but I know these girls have my back in the field out there," Hancock said. "Courtney [Albritton] made a great play on a fly ball out there in center, April [Collins] and Fran [Johnson] came up with several great catches, and Shelby [Altman] made the big play for us with runners at the corners in the sixth. I knew not to try anything crazy and just let my defense take care of business."
The loss ended a season for the Spartans that included just eight losses, two of which came this weekend against The Blazers.
Strong pitching dominated throughout the course of the afternoon, as both Morrow and Hancock took no-hitters into the third and fourth innings, respectively.
Valdosta State struck for the game's first hits in the bottom of the third with singles by both Collins and Altman before Morrow struck out Kiley Rusen for one of her eight strikeouts on the afternoon.
Bre Setree singled to left field in the top of the following inning to break up Hancock's no-hit bid, but that was all the Spartans could muster, as the Blazer senior induced a shallow fly ball to right field for the third and final out of the top half of the fourth.
The Spartans singled again in the fifth with two away, but Hancock made yet another big pitch for Valdosta State to force pinch hitter Kelsey Humphrey to pop one up to Altman at short.
Collins added to her two-hit day in the sixth inning with a two out single, followed by a walk to Albritton that moved Collins into scoring position. Altman got under one in the next at-bat for a fly ball to center field which left two stranded for VSU after six.
With the game tied at 0-0 heading into the final inning of regulation, the seventh produced multiple heart-stopping moments beginning with a first and third situation for the Spartans in the top half of the frame.
Tampa put together a two out walk by Katlyn Raatz followed by a single off the bat of Alyssa Coletti. The base hit to right field allowed Raatz to take third base for Jenna Halper, who lifted a shallow fly ball down the left field line, where Altman showed off her range as she drifted over to make the catch and leave the potential go-ahead run stranded just sixty feet away.
The bottom of the seventh started off with a bang, as Johnson, who struck out in her first two at-bats of the afternoon, came up big with a gapper to right center that rolled to the wall and allowed Johnson to dart around the bases and cruise into third with a stand-up triple. Morrow prompted the next two Blazer batters to pop up on the infield before Collins stepped to the dish. The second pitch of Collins' at-bat hit the dirt and skipped past Tampa catcher Kandi Kuder, which allowed Johnson to scurry to the plate and slide in safely for the game's winning run.
"Coach [Thomas Macera] called it," Johnson of the wild pitch said. "He told me over and over again to look for the passed ball, look for the wild pitch. The third baseman was playing in, so I was able to get a good jump, and as soon as it got past her at the plate, I just put my head down and ran."
The loss for Morrow closed out her season record at 15-5, and the costly wild pitch represented just her 10th of the 2014 season.
Valdosta State will now travel to Huntsville, Alabama next weekend to face the Chargers, who claimed a 5-4 eight inning win versus Rollins on their home field in the South 1 Regional Championship game on Sunday afternoon.