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Steve Hemphill | | May 26, 2014

Hemphill: Pitchers face tough calls vs. Valdosta St.

  Courtney Albritton has teamed up with Shelby Altman to give the Blazers a dynamic 1-2 punch.

SALEM, Va. -- When Valdosta State bats in the first inning, opposing pitchers already have a decision to make.

Pick your poison. Are you going to pitch to first-team All-American Courtney Albritton, the Blazers’ leadoff hitter? Or will you pitch around her and take your chances with Shelby Altman. She’s just a second-team All-American.

So far at the NCAA Division II championships at Moyer Sports Complex, the solution to this puzzle has yet to be answered. And opponents are running out of time. After its 5-3 win against Southeastern Oklahoma on Sunday afternoon, Valdosta State (48-14) is one win away from claiming its second national championship in three seasons.

And the top-two players in the lineup have a lot to do with that.

Sunday’s game was a prime example. Albritton opened the game with a single, and then Altman promptly got the Blazers on the board by doubling her teammate and close friend home to score the first of three first-inning runs.

Albritton then homered an inning later to give Valdosta State a 4-0 lead. It was also the last time the junior centerfielder would see a hittable pitch the rest of the game.

Enter Altman, who would instead be seeing the good pitches. With the score 4-3 in the top of the sixth and two runners on, the Savage Storm decided to walk Albritton and take their chances with Altman. She promptly singled in an insurance run for Valdosta State, which then closed out Dixie State and earned the right to play top-ranked West Texas A&M at noon Monday in the tournament final.

As is usually the case, the plan concocted by Blazers coach Thomas Macera worked again.

“I’m going to cry tomorrow because Shelby’s a senior,” Macera said. “She’s protected Courtney all year. … Shelby has allowed Courtney to see a lot good pitching that she wouldn’t normally get to see. We’re really blessed with these two young ladies.”

While Albritton has been hitting leadoff all year, Macera said he decided to move Altman to second in the lineup in an attempt to improve the way his team started games. The Blazers were 23-8 at the time, and Albritton was hitting .396 with 11 home runs at the time.

The first day the two hit back to back – in a doubleheader with Christian Brothers on March 22 – Albritton went a combined 5 -for-5 with four home runs in a sweep. Her average went past .400 that day, and it has remained up there since. After her 2-for-2 performance against Southeastern Oklahoma, Albritton is hitting .443 and 27 homers.

“Courtney just set the Gulf South Conference record for career home runs -- not just the season,” Macera said. “She’s a very, very good hitter, but Shelby gets a piece of that because all year long, if you work around Shelby, you have to deal with Courtney. “

Altman has also moved above the .400 mark since the lineup change for the Blazers and has 21 home runs. She can’t think of a better way to be wrapping up her college career than to be in this situation.

“I looked at it that I was going to be hitting behind the No. 1 player in the nation, so, I’d have to step up at the plate,” Altman said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was probably one of my happiest moments because it’s not every day you get to hit behind your best friend.”

For Albritton, she Altman’s success has helped her relax when she is at bat. There is no sense of urgency to swing at pitches outside of the zone in an attempt to get the team going.

“Today when they did walk me, I was like ‘it’s no big deal, Shelby’s coming up,’” Albrtoon said. “… I’m supposed to be selective, but am I? No.

“I try to wait for the better pitch. Of course, when they tried to walk me that first time, I was just relaxed the rest of the game.”

And Valdosta State knows that if their star player is relaxed, then good things are probably going to happen, like reach another national title game.

DII football programs with the most NCAA DII national championships

Here's a look at the programs that have won the most DII football national championships.