HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The day started off on a sour note for Valdosta State softball team with a five-inning 9-1 loss to the Chargers of Alabama-Huntsville in Game 1 of a doubleheader in the NCAA South Super Regional on Saturday. But the Blazers turned the tables in the second game of the day and rode a strong pitching effort by sophomore Caitlyn Calhoun to prevail in a 6-3 win, which earned the Blazers their third consecutive trip to the NCAA national tournament.
The Blazers improved their record to 45-14 on the year after the Saturday split, while the Chargers saw their season come to an end with a final record of 48-12.
The Chargers scored quickly in the opening game with an RBI single to right field off the bat of Kaitlyn Bannister, who drove in Macie Couey after she reached two batters earlier on a fielding error by Chelsea Canara at second base and moved into scoring position by stealing second base.
The 1-0 lead was held in check by Charger pitcher Emily Glover until the bottom of the third, when Courtney Albritton tied the game up at 1-1 and set a new Gulf South Conference and Valdosta State single-season home run record with her 26th home run of the 2014 season. The four bagger broke the record previously held by assistant coach Marty Littlefield, who hit 25 home runs during her freshman season back in 2009.
Entering the fifth inning, the score remained locked up at one apiece before Huntsville unleashed an offensive onslaught. The squad put together six hits, including a two run shot by Emily Glover, to bring in eight runs and give the Chargers a 9-1 lead midway through the fifth.
Valdosta State was unable to add to their total in the bottom of the frame, and the contest ended by way of the mercy rule after just five innings of play.
In a win or go home situation, the Blazers put the tough loss behind them and opened up the scoring in game three of the Super Regional with four runs in the bottom half of the second inning. Hannah Strickland led off the frame with a single and was driven in two batters later by Canara, who lifted a pitch from Glover over the fence in left field to give Valdosta State a 2-0 advantage. One out later, the Blazers strung together three consecutive hits with a single by April Collins, a single by Albritton, and a two-run double by Shelby Altman into the left field corner that expanded VSU's lead to 4-0.
The red and black brought in two additional insurance runs in the bottom half of the fifth inning with two runs on three hits. The inning was sparked by a leadoff homer to right field by Kiley Rusen, who blasted a low liner over the wall in right for the 11th long ball of her sophomore season.
Calhoun, who got the nod in as the starting pitcher in the second game of the Saturday doubleheader after Brianna Hancock went the distance in the first game of the day, blanked the Chargers for six full innings before giving up three runs in the seventh.
She worked a one-hitter all the way until the seventh inning, before allowing three hits in the seventh, all of which were home runs. She weathered the storm, however, and the contest came to a close with a fly ball by UAH center fielder Mallory McNeal that sailed out to deep right field, where Fran Johnson made the catch on the warning track as she slammed into the fence. The outstanding defensive play capped off a 6-3 victory for VSU, and a celebration ensued.
Valdosta State's third consecutive trip to the national championship tournament marks the fifth time in Valdosta State Athletics history that a Blazer squad has advanced to the nation's final eight teams in three consecutive seasons. The Blazer tennis team accomplished the feat twice (2000-02 and 2006-08) while the women's tennis team started a stretch that began in 2007 and carried on through the 2009 season. The first program to claim three consecutive trips to Nationals were the Blazer baseball teams of 1977, 1978, and 1979.
Play begins in the eight-team tournament on Thursday, May 22 in Salem, Virginia, with the Blazers opening up play at 5 p.m. ET against Wayne State (Mich.), which won two games against Missouri St. Louis on Saturday to claim the Midwest Super Regional championship.