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Steve Hemphill | | May 22, 2014

Armstrong Atlantic overcame ‘rough patch’ to return to the Div. II Championships

SALEM, Va. -- Armstrong Atlantic came into the 2014 softball season with an experienced lineup that had made a good run the previous year in the NCAA Division II championships.

But as the Pirates meandered their way through the year, the potential of this team was certainly in question.

“We called it the rough patch,” senior third baseman Kacie Patterson said. “It’s hard to explain.”

Head coach Ted Evans said the rough patch certainly challenged him on how to work with this team.

“It was hard to understand at times,” he said.

Sometimes he would see the good and bad side of his team on the same day. On several occasions, the Pirates would lose a close game to a team with a poor record to open a doubleheader and then follow that up by blowing out the same team.

The worst part of the rough patch began in late March. The Pirates had put together a 15-game winning streak, but it was snapped in the second game of a doubleheader on March 23 by Georgia Southwestern. Over the next four weeks, Armstrong Atlantic went 6-7 and was eliminated in the second round of the Peach Belt Conference tournament by Columbus State.

When that game ended, the Pirates (36-13) went on a forced break. Conference rules state that if any school in the conference is taking finals, no other schools in the conference can play. That meant no games for three weeks.

“We got that first week off right after we finished playing regular season,” Patterson said. “I think that time off did us good. We got away from each other for a little while. And then we came back and we were ready to go.”

Once the team reconvened, Patterson said Evans put the Pirates through two weeks of intense practices. And it seemed to her and her older teammates that something had changed.

That was proved once the regional tournament began. Armstong went 3-0 and advanced to its super regional at second-ranked North Georgia.

The Pirates won Game 1 by a 3-2 score, and then needed to win just one of two potential contests the next day to clinch its spot in the national tournament.

North Georgia won the first, 7-5, and was ahead 5-4 in the deciding game of the series going into the top of the sixth.

“Finally everything clicked, and we started feeding on down the lineup,” Patterson said.

The Pirates scored eight times to take a 12-5 lead. They then withstood North Georgia’s rally in the bottom of the seventh  and came away with a 12-10 win.

Armstrong Atlantic followed that up with a  5-2 victory against West Chester to open NCAA championship play on Thursday at Moyer Sports Complex in Salem. Pirates All-American shortstop Alexis Mercer hit her 23rd home run of the season to highlight their offense.

“We’re kind of used to that as a team,” Mercer said. “We mostly score by home runs. It’s nice that we can bring it here when it counts.”

On defense, the Pirates ended three West Chester at-bats with double plays. Evans said going for two is just a natural instinct for this team -- especially for Patterson and Mercer.

“In our conference, we lead in double plays by a big margin, and a good part of it is because the left side of our infield is so strong,” he said. “[Mercer and Patterson] are simply the best I’ve ever had. They get that thing going, and if there’s any question of whether they’re going to go to first or second, they’re going to second. … Man that gets you out of a jams.”

Or as Patterson would call it, a rough patch.