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Steven Hemphill | | May 23, 2014

Hemphill: Valdosta State knows both sides

  Valdosta State rallied for three runs in the seventh inning to beat Wayne State 8-5 on Thursday.

SALEM, Va. -- In the past two seasons, Valdosta State has experienced both ends of the NCAA Division II Softball Championships.

In 2012, the Blazers won it all, overcoming an opening-game loss and winning five in a row to claim the national championship.

In 2013, Valdosta State lost a pair of games in extra innings, and were headed home before the weekend had even started. Coming off what had happen just a year earlier, the turnaround was difficult to handle.

“After winning this my freshman year, to have what happened last year, we were just kind of in shock that it happened,” three-time all-American Courtney Albritton said, who was a fulltime starter on both of those teams. “This year, we have more motivation not to do that.”

Whether it was motivation or just the odds coming back in their favor, the Blazers managed to get through the always-challenging first day of the tournament by rallying for three runs in the seventh inning the score, and then going on to beat Wayne State 8-5 on Thursday at Moyer Sports Complex.

Blazers coach Thomas Macera said the way his team won the game -- Valdosta finished with 15 hits and scored eight earned runs against Wayne State’s Lyndsay Butler, who came into the game with a 0.86 ERA in more than 200 innings pitched.

“Holy moly!” Macera said. “The one thing that’s gotten us here was our hitting. … [Butler] is a great pitcher -- look at her stats.

“We had 15 hits against a pitcher who probably didn’t give up 15 hits in a doubleheader all year. We’re blessed.”

Finding a way to win is nothing new for the Blazers, which is a necessity when you play in a conference as difficult as the Gulf South Conference and are in a region that included teams such as Alabama-Huntsville and Tampa, two schools that spent most of season ranked in the top 10.

But Valdosta was up to the challenge. The Blazers beat Tampa in back-to-back games to win their regional tournament, then toped Huntsville in the final game of the best-of-3 super regional to return to the national tournament.

In the second Tampa game during regionals, the Blazers won 1-0 on when they scored the game’s lone run on a wild pitch in the seventh inning. Something just about as unexpected happened on Thursday when Fran Johnson, who had six home runs all year, connected on a three-run shot in the ninth inning against Wayne State to put Valdosta ahead for good.

“Our team has so much heart, and we believe in each other so much, that it wasn’t just my hit,” Johnson said of her game-winning shot. “We had to have people on. This had to do with the whole team. … We just fight and we want to finish what we came here to do.”

For the first time in three years, the Blazers have begun that mission by getting off on the right foot.