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Steven Hemphill | | May 24, 2014

Hemphill: Valdosta St. gets rest as reward

SALEM, Va. -- After three consecutive NCAA Division II national championship games that were stretched into extra innings, Valdosta State was ready for a change of pace on Friday night.

Pitcher Brianna Hancock was ready to oblige. In her mind it was just a good way to pay back her teammates for helping her out of bind a day earlier. She settled her account by throwing a one-hitter in the Blazers’ 8-0 win against Dixie State at the Moyer Sports Complex.

With the victory, the 2012 national champions were rewarded with a day off -- Valdosta State will face whichever of the three teams on its side of the bracket survives Saturday’s elimination day -- and probably more importantly, a rejuvenated starting pitcher.

The 2014 tournament did not start smoothly for the Hancock. In Valdosta State’s tournament opener with Wayne State, Hancock was replaced midway through the game and the Blazers were behind -- that was until a three-run seventh inning forced extra innings. And then Valdosta eventually won that game 8-5 in nine innings.

“It was an off day, but there was something wrong mechanically, and luckily, we were able to fix that [Friday],” Hancock said. “I came out there knowing what to do differently, really try to hit my spots and work hard.”

Hancock said the problem had to do with how one of her feet was moving as she delivered the pitch.

But even with the mechanics fixed, things still weren’t great to start the game, which drew a mound visit by coach Thomas Macera just two batters into the game.

“I think she started a little bit slow today, and I went out there and I simply told her 'relax and pitch,'” Macera said. “That's all we talked about and then I walked off the field.

“And she never let up from that point on.”

Hancock said when her teammates put up three runs in the first three innings, that helped her relax a little bit more. Still, considering the competition, the pitcher’s performance was above average.

Dixie State came into the tournament with a starting lineup that was all hitting .300 or better -- four of the Red Storm club were hitting better than .400. And it was also a team that was riding a 27-game winning streak -- easily the longest string of victories by any of the eight tournament qualifiers.

“I try not to think too much about [the other team’s] stats,” Hancock said. “It's in the back of my mind about how you look on paper, but for the most part, we haven't seen these teams before, and they've never seen me.

“It's good to know if they're a good hitter, but they haven't seen me. So, are you a good hitter? We'll see after you bat. That's the mentality that I have.”

Her coach said that attitude never subsides. Macera talked about what might have been the lowest point in the Blazers’ season, when conference rival Alabama-Huntsville came onto Valdosta’s home field in early April and swept a three-game series.

“She could have laid down then -- both of our pitchers could have,” Macera said. “But they didn't. We came back swinging the next week. You have to take what happened, learn from it, and move on.”

Hancock, who improved to 24-6 with the win over Dixie State, and her teammates did a lot of moving on in the first two days. And whoever stays alive on Saturday will have another uphill battle on Sunday – Valdosta State needs only to win one of two games to advance to Monday’s final.

And Hancock’s coach says any self-doubt his top pitcher might have had earlier in the week appear to be gone, which was no surprise to Macera.

“You can't carry that around like lugguge. ... That's what these girls and Bri have been able to do,” Hancock said. "Bri has had a four-year career here. Bri has seen the best and worst in herself, and the best and worst of our teams. And she always comes back from it.

“And when Bri's confident and Bri's rolling, look out.”

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