SALEM, Va. -- For most of Monday afternoon, Texas-Tyler worked to figure out the secret to beating top-ranked Tufts -- a mystery no team had cracked all season long.
And just when the Patriots thought they might have the Jumbos solved, everything changed.
Tufts became the first team win three consecutive NCAA Division III softball national championships by sweeping the first two games of its best-of-three series with Texas-Tyler by scores of 2-0 and 7-4 on Monday.
In Game 1, four-time All-American Allyson Fournier allowed a lead-off hit to UT-Tyler’s Whitney Burt, then nothing else until the fifth inning. But the Patriots’ Kelsie Batten, who had been almost as stingy as Fournier during the tournament, was holding her own.
Eventually, UT-Tyler did get a chance in the fifth when catcher KK Stevens opened the inning with a double, and then moved over to third base with one out. But Fournier responded with a strikeout and an infield pop-up to keep the game scoreless.
That seemed to be the spark the Jumbos needed on offense, as they responded with three hits, including a Bri Keenan two-run single, which was all Tufts needed to win Game 1.
In Game 2, Fournier’s pitch count started to rise, and so did UT-Tyler’s hopes. Fournier said she probably was starting to lose some of the spin on her breaking balls as the day wore on, and the Patriots were taking advantage.
“[Fournier] does a tremendous job pitching,” UT-Tyler coach Mike Reed said. “In Game 2, I thought we adjusted. We kept trying to find, but she does a great job of making you find where she will go next.”
No one had hit a home run off of Fournier until UT-Tyler’s Jackie Mendez accomplished it in the fifth inning. That shot gave the Patriots a 2-0 lead and true hope that they could force the series to another day.
Then came the response by the Jumbos -- one that they might not have even expected.
For more than two weeks, both Tufts coach Cheryl Milligan and her team was concerned about the team’s ability to hit the ball. Three runs was the most the Jumbos had scored in the championship tournament, and now they had to score at least twice just to get back to even.
That all changed in the sixth. Cassie Ruscz got her team going with a one-out solo home run. Four more hits and three UT-Tyler errors later, Tufts had scored six runs and were in control.
“We make great adjustments, as games go on,” Milligan said. “Once we go around the batting order a couple of times, our bats seem to figure it out. We’re a cerebral type of team, and we figure out we can be better batters as the game go on.”
The fight wasn’t completely gone in UT-Tyler. The Patriots loaded the bases in both the sixth and seventh innings, and were within three runs thanks to a lead-off home run by Stevens.
When Shelby Shelton came to bat with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and the bases loaded, a home run by her would have given UT-Tyler what it needed to force a Game 3. She got the ball in the air and fairly deep into left field, but not deep enough.
“I could tell right away that it was going to stay in the field,” Tufts senior Michele Cooprider said. “I think I was already running to infield before we made the catch.”
Understandably, the Patriots were disappointed with the outcome. One of the best hitting teams in the country, UT-Tyler probably produced enough offense that on a regular day it would have led to a win. But the Patriots also had five errors, which was far from the norm. Reed said he didn’t notice anything different in his team on Monday, other than it was facing the best team in Division III softball for the past three years.
“I don’t think we were more tired than anyone else,” he sad. “They’re used to playing tournaments since they were little-bitty. … But it’s a pressure-packed environment.
“So there’s mental fatigue, and when you’re playing such a good team, it's tough. You know one mistake here or there can make a big difference. So there’s a lot of pressure involved.
But the fact that UT-Tyler still managed to give itself a chance to win even after the mistakes gave Reed some positives that are so hard to find sometimes when you get as close as UT-Tyler did to winning the national tournament.
“The hitting came through, and I felt like we were starting to get more comfortable and we made some great swings,” he said. "We had opportunities in that second game, but we just didn’t play clean enough to allow us to have a chance at the end.
“This team just never quit,” he said. “That’s been their story -- right down to the last swing. … It’s been a great season. They had great chemistry, and a way about them. It’s one of those teams you search for as a coach every year, and it really clicked this year.”