SALEM, Va. -- As always, great pitching has been the dominant force in the NCAA Division III Softball Championships.
So when it came time for separation, each team had to find a little something extra from another part of the game to continue advancing in the bracket.
For No. 1 Tufts and No. 2 Texas-Tyler, the edge in Sunday’s semifinals ended up being defense.
But it could have been more had it not been for a play by Texas-Tyler center fielder Christa Hartnett one inning earlier.
Salisbury, which was trying to return to the championship game for the second consecutive season, looked like it might take a lead with two outs in the top of sixth inning when Annah Brittingham sent a hard-hit fly ball to deep center over the head of Hartnett.
“I read the ball off of the bat quickly, obviously,” Hartnett said. “I took a drop-step right and just started running because I knew it was a pretty good shot.”
It was good enough to be a home run -- if Hartnett had not jumped and snagged the ball after it was already cleared the field of play.
“I had no clue the fence was there until I caught it, realized it was probably two or three feet over the fence,” she said. "I knew I was going to catch it all along. I just didn’t know I was going to [almost] run out of room.
“I always said that in my career I wanted to rob a home run, and what a time to do it in the World Series going into the championship game.”
So despite the fact that the Patriots fell behind in the next inning, keeping the Sea Gulls to no more than a two-run advantage at least meant Texas-Tyler was still in the neighborhood.
After Salisbury All-American pitcher Rachel Johnson issued a one-out walk and then hit a batter, Hartnett punched a single into shallow center to load the bases. Eventually, that led to Shelby Shelton’s two-run single, which was then followed by Jackie Mendez’s walk-off single that put the Patriots into the championship.
“For us to hold our composure in the bottom of the seventh … it was so big for us,” Texas-Tyler coach Mike Reed said. “We did not give up and played to the last pitch -- just like everyone says you should do. I told [the team] that they would probably go on to bigger and better things in life than that one game, but they probably won’t forget that game.”
For Tufts, the key defensive plays were not quite as dramatic, but just as important. In a game that featured its All-American pitcher Allyson Fournier against Linfield’s Montana McNealy, who was coming off a no-hit performance one night earlier against DePauw, the Jumbos' 1-0 win was the result of scoring an unearned run.
Tufts center fielder Michelle Cooprider made four of the last seven outs by catching fly balls -- two of those demanding some rather athletic maneuvers.
In the fifth inning, Cooprider robbed Linfield’s Kenzie Schmoll of at least a base hit when she dived forward in shallow left center to catch the ball just inches before it hit the ground.
“That was a little bit of poor communication, and then at the last minute good communication,” she said. “And I just kind of lucked out a little.”
In the seventh, Cooprider ended the game by flying from her center field post over to shallow right center to register the final out of the game.
“The last out, I didn’t realize how far I went, but evidently it was pretty far,” she said.
Something else that has come a long way is Tufts’ defensive play. Head coach Cheryl Milligan had little good to say about how the Jumbos looked in the field during March and April.
“We were terrible,” she said. “We were an awful defensive team for a long time. And it made sense.”
Milligan said the harsh weather in late winter and early spring in New England forced Tufts to have most of their practices indoors. And while the school has good indoor facilities for its softball program, it’s still not the same.
“For a while, we didn’t even get to take reps outside,” Cooprider said. “We went to Florida on spring break, and when we came back, and had almost a month before we were able to go outside at all. So being outside in any type of weather was a big deal for us.
“Once we were able to go out there and have outside be more routine than inside, I think we definitely started to make the turn in general of playing better defense.”
And Cooprider has been leading the way. To go along with having the team’s second-highest batting average (.429) and second-most RBIs (40). She had just two errors this year and eight assists.
“Michelle has run down balls all over for us,” Milligan said. “She’s got so much speed out there. We don’t see it quite as often because we do tend to get a lot of strikeouts. But when you get to this level, you’re going to face better hitters who are going to put balls in play. I think she’s really rising to the occasion.”
With Fournier and another All-American, Kelsie Batten, expected to pitch in the championship series, both teams will be looking for more defensive moments.