Saturday, May 28, 2011

Atlantic Sun Primed for Return to Multi-Bid Status

In most years, sixth seeds at the Atlantic Sun Conference Championship don't realistically pose a major threat to walk out with the trophy. Most A-Sun sports don't feature six RPI top-90 teams however.

It had been since Jacksonville in the 2003 Baseball Championship that a sixth seed in any sport had won an A-Sun crown before Belmont ran through this year's tournament with a perfect 4-0 mark. No sixth seed had won the A-Sun Championship in undefeated fashion since UCF in 1997

The Bruins, who needed two wins at regular-season champion Stetson in the final weekend just to make the field, beat Stetson, Kennesaw State and Mercer twice to claim their first Baseball Championship. They began the week with an RPI rating of 88, according to, and following the four-game run, moved up to No. 64.

"For us, accomplishing the goal of getting into the [A-Sun] Tournament was a major feat," Head Coach Dave Jarvis said. "This is such a good league, there's so much parity in this baseball league...I mean you can see that in results every weekend. I had that gut feeling that if we got into the tournament that we were going to win it. I kept telling our players that time and time and time again and they responded to that kind of challenge. At the end of the day they got the job done."

The narrow gap in talent among the six teams exemplified itself in the fact that the lower seeded team won eight of the 10 games played. Mercer, Belmont's opponent in the title game, counted three wins towards that total - only losing when facing Belmont.

The conference stands to return to its traditional place as one of the few elite leagues that earn multiple-bids to NCAA Regional play when the 64 teams are announced on Monday. The conference has earned 19 at-large selections since 1990 and placed multiple teams in the field every year from 1999 through 2007. Only one conference in the NCAA features more 35-win schools this year than the A-Sun's five (the ACC, six). The six schools that competed in the A-Sun Championship earned more than 40 victories against RPI top 50 schools and only once conference scored more non-conference victories against the East Division of the SEC than the seven the A-Sun earned.

"I see the league very much like it was 10 years ago when we first got in the [A-Sun] and our conference was getting three teams in a lot of years," Jarvis said. "[The A-Sun] is such a strong baseball conference - and I think it's recognized as a strong conference - but realistically not to the degree of difficulty that is. There is no place that you go in this league that...won't be very difficult situations."

Belmont will be able to relax until Monday afternoon's selection show knowing its name will appear in the bracket, but Jarvis is hopeful that multiple fellow conference members will enjoy the same fate.

"I think that this league deserves a lot of due credit," Jarvis said. "I know Stetson deserves their at-large bid and I really believe that when you look at what Mercer has accomplished with 39 wins, what Jacksonville's accomplished - finishing second in our league - and some of the non-conference wins that these teams have put together - there's no way you can overlook this conference."

Friday, May 27, 2011

J.T. Odom: Mercer's Very Own Rubberband Man

Through Mercer's four games at the 2011 Atlantic Sun Championship the pitcher to have logged the most innings was not one of their four starting pitchers, but rather their sidearmed slinger J.T. Odom.

The Bears' senior closer has pitched in all four contests, working a total of 8 2/3 innings. In those innings he has struck out nine against only three hits and one walk. He has earned the save in all Mercer victories. However, one of those hits proved to be the deciding home run in their one loss - a loss that came early Friday afternoon.

"[After the Belmont loss] we just got on the bus and I just buried my head in my hotel bed to try and clear my head," the senior said. "I just tried to get ready for the next game because I knew I would probably [be] a big part in the outcome. I couldn't think any more about that game. I honestly had to pretend like that game didn't even happen."

Odom only had a few hours to forget that pitch as he was asked to face the league's top player, Adam Brett Walker while protecting a narrow 1-0 advantage in the eighth inning. Although Walker won that battle with a single, Odom again found himself on the mound recording the 27th out of the contest as he stepped on first receiving a toss from John Moreland to close the first 1-0 A-Sun Championship in 164 tournament games.

"He's been so good for us, his numbers are unbelievable - his strikeout to base-on-ball ratio (71-7 after Friday) is probably one of the top in the country," Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. "[Belmont] got some good swings on him this morning, but he had success against [Jacksonville] a couple days ago so we wanted to run him out there again tonight."

With all the success Odom has enjoyed in 2011, Gibson has had to hold back on using him too much.

"I'll be honest, I want to start him," Gibson said with wide smile. "He's a guy that just goes - and this may be his last baseball - but he's going to give us everything he has and is going to leave everything between the lines for us. I'm kind of selfish...I want to use him all the time."

Mercer recently saw a former Bear, Cory Gearrin reach the majors with the Atlanta Braves. During this year, Gibson starting referring to Odom as "Gearrin" and Odom has backed up the praise with great performances each night.

"He didn't make all-conference and we thought he was one of the better relievers in the league and now he's getting the chance to show that he is," Gibson said. "I told him that he's really pitched better than Cory for us. You know we never won a championship with Cory and J.T. has given us that chance to do it."

During the Bears' run to the title in 2010, Odom only came into one game. Even with the knowledge that last year ended with a dogpile, he admitted to feeling more involved with this run.

"I would say I feel a little more a part of this [championship]," Odom said. "I've been in every game and been a key component in every game so that's been awesome. It's going to be something I'm going to remember the rest of my life."

Dolphins Keep Championship Hopes Alive

‘Survive and Advance’ is usually a term saved for March and college basketball, but it also translates to the double elimination tournament being played at Lipscomb’s Dugan Field with the Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship.

Jacksonville became the latest example of that cliché in action with its 5-3 victory against top-seeded Stetson in the tournament’s third elimination game. The Dolphins now face that same situation again with a showdown against fourth-seeded Mercer, who already earned a 2-1 victory against JU on Thursday.

The Dolphins utilized strong pitching performances from three different hurlers, which included a three-inning save by Second Team All-Conference closer Chris Anderson to finish off Stetson, the regular-season champions.

“[Chris] Anderson was outstanding for us coming in the seventh as well as Appleby by getting that double play, while Eagerton has been a force us all year long even though he got a little tired out there today,” Head Coach Terry Alexander said of his Saturday pitching staff.

JU led throughout the game by picking up four runs in the first four innings to build their lead, but with a top-20 RPI team in the opposing dugout their lead was never safe as Stetson rallied to cut into the Dolphins’ advantage to two twice.

“[Stetson] is a quality team no doubt about it, we’re just going out there and try to play games as many as we can and win as many as we can and let it all shake out at the end,” Alexander on his team’s road ahead.

With three wins over the next 24 hours separating JU from its fifth A-Sun Championship in the past 13 years, the Dolphins will need the bats to come alive after only scoring eight total runs in their first three games.

“We just have to come out [against Mercer] and try our best by stretching out some runs and get behind some quality pitching,” Adam Brett Walker, the A-Sun Player of the Year pointed out.

The Bears will be awaiting the Dolphins at first pitch at 7:05 p.m. to see who will once again survive and advance.

Belmont's Run Highlights A-Sun Depth

Belmont entered the 2011 A-Sun Baseball Championship seeded sixth in the tournament joining five other RPI Top-90 teams in field after clinching their spot on the final day of the regular season. Since securing their spot in the tournament at Lipscomb’s Dugan Field, Belmont has been a force to be reckoned with in a conference that is hoping to receive multiple at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.

“The parity within this league is great when you look at the fact that Stetson has been in the top-20 all year long and then you have the teams come in this week and compete the way they have it is not a surprise,” Belmont Head Coach Dave Jarvis said of the A-Sun depth. “I think you could throw the seedings out of the window for this tournament at the beginning with the way the teams were playing coming in.”

The Bruins opened with a win against top-seeded Stetson (No. 19 RPI) on Wednesday in impressive fashion pummeling the Hatters 15-3 and then showed their grit with a close 4-1 triumph against Kennesaw State (No. 88 RPI) to eliminate the Owls from Nashville.

With a spot in the A-Sun Championship final on the line against fourth-seeded Mercer (No. 54 RPI), the Bruins twice battled back from two two-run deficits during the game before Derek Hamblen’s two-run shot in the top of the ninth inning gave Belmont the lead for good at 6-4 and advances them to Championship Saturday.

For Belmont, its senior class carried the Bruins to victory against the Bears with Hamblen, Matt Zeblo both going deep, Nate Woods getting the start on the mound and Tim Egerton and Jon Ivie adding contributions in the ninth to close out Mercer. Jarvis knows without them this season would have turned out differently.

“It shows a lot of great upperclassmen leadership especially from our two senior captains Derek Hamblen and Nate Woods who have grabbed ahold of the steering wheel and how all the other upperclassmen have followed them in that pursuit.”

Jarvis knows that his team is now in the driver seat for the remainder of the conference championship by needing only one win to take their first A-Sun Championship title, which would make them the first six seed to win the conference crown since 2003.

“Anyone we face has to win three games from this point forward. It has effects on pitching on kid’s rest and ability to just stay focused but at the end of the day it’s still just baseball and we have to come ready to play in the first inning.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

French Refuses to Surrender in Latest Gutty Win

Almost from the start of Thursday's Atlantic Sun Championship between Mercer and Jacksonville, Bear starter Justice French found himself pitching out of the stretch position. Any one mistake could have opened the offensive floodgates for the Dolphins and put the Bears in an early deficit. However, he made the necessary pitches to wriggle out of multiples to pitch the Bears to a 2-1 victory.

In his 6.1 innings of work, 12 Jacksonville hitters reached base. Only one of those runners came in to score and that came when Adam Brett Walker did the work himself, homering in the fourth inning. He stranded runners in every inning except the third and on three occasions, he stranded multiple runners.

In the first inning, with Dolphins at first and second, he struck out Kevin Lehane. An inning later, the Dolphins put a runner at third with two away but induced a ground out by Esterlin Perozo. He threw a perfect third inning but in both the fourth and fifth inning he managed to get out of bases loaded jams. The fourth inning started with the Walker home run but concluded with a fly out by Taylor Ratliff only after three reached base.

"I was able to get those 'high-energy' pitches early in the game and I was able to get in a rhythm a little bit," French said. "They're a good hitting team and they're going to get hits, but I was able to limit the damage and that's what you need to do to win games."

In the fifth, he retired the first two batters of the frame but for a third straight at bat could not retire Walker as he singled to right. Lehane singled in front of Jimmy Howick. Howick beat out an infield hit to second base but crumbled to the Dugan Field grass in immense pain. While trainers tended to Howick, French used the time to stay warm and focus in on Colin Monagle, a pinch hitter. Monagle fouled out and in the following inning, the Bear offense rewarded French's efforts by scratching across a pair of runs, the only two runs needed in the 2-1 win.

"I thought that [the injury delay] was a big moment because [prior to it] they had strung together a couple of hits and I thought it kind of slowed down their momentum," French said. "I felt like I had to take advantage of [the moment] and I wanted to get the next guy and was able to do it."

For French, in-game adversity on the mound pails in comparison to some of the real-life challenges he has already beaten. In a story featured in the Atlantic Journal Constitution and on, French was diagnosed with melanoma last summer but through surgeries he has returned to full strength.

"He's a warrior and a competitor and he's fought hard," Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. "He's always given us this type of outing most of the year...and that's what we needed from a great senior leader. He gave us his best game of the year at the best time."

Belmont Offense Efficiently Effective on Day Two

The Belmont hot streak continued on Thursday as the Bruins picked up their 16th win in the last 21 games against A-Sun opponents with a 4-1 victory against Kennesaw State. On day one of the A-Sun Championship, Belmont’s offense platted 15 runs against top-seeded Stetson. In 10 of those 21 games, the Bruins’ offense registered at least eight runs to help Belmont to the six seed.

After platting 15 runs against Stetson in game one on seven extra-base hits – including three home runs – some would worry that Belmont wouldn’t be able to duplicate their run production again, but the Bruins front man Dave Jarvis didn’t want to waste the run production yesterday.

“There is an old saying about runs is that [runs] spoil so you can’t let them go to waste. You can’t keep them till the next day so you have to use them when you get them and then regenerate them again the next day and we were able to do that today.”

With Kennesaw State’s Bryan Blough (4-3, 3.51 ERA) on the bump for the Owls it looked as if the Belmont bats had gone stale early in the game as Blough retired the Bruins in order in each of the first three innings. Upon seeing Blough for a second time in the game, the Bruins started seeing success. Derek Hamblen singled leading off the fourth inning. After advancing to second a Dylan Craig sacrifice bunt, Nate Woods drove in Hamblen to give Belmont the game’s first run.

“Today we came in looking for a dogfight because we knew the kind of pitcher that Blough was and the great arm that he has so we knew we had to put things together against him to have an opportunity to score runs.”

More opportunities appeared in the sixth and eight innings to give the Bruins the 4-0 advantage and chase Blough from the game after 7.2 innings of work. With multi-hit performances coming from four different Belmont batters (Hamblen, Craig, Matt Zeblo and Jared Breen) the Bruins anxiously await their next opponent to see which batters will step up for BU again.

“This is as balanced of an offense that I have ever seen for us because we don’t have one kid that has off-the-chart average or off-the-chart power, but we have good balance throughout the lineup in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and RBI.”

Coach Jarvis and Belmont hope to continue their hot streak in the A-Sun Championship and that their two wins thus far don’t spoil and go to waste.

Hatters Down but not Out

Stetson immediately put itself up against the wall with Wednesday's loss to Belmont sending the top seed to the consolation bracket. They began their road back by receiving clutch hitting from the bottom of the order as well as when facing two strikes to defeat ETSU on Thursday by a 7-2 score.

After allowing the Buccaneers to level the score at two and with the game moving into the late innings, the Hatters rallied twice with two-out rallies. They pushed across the go-ahead runs in the sixth inning. With runners at second and third, Mitchel Brennan, the eighth-place hitter, delivered a crushing blow to right center that plated the pair. After advancing to third, Kyle Zech continued the rally by scoring Brennan with an infield single.

"At the bottom of the order, you get a lot of pitches to see because [the pitcher] doesn't want to face the top of the order," Brennan said. "I was just sitting back on off-speed and I got one I could handle and drove it into the gap. My only thought was to get the runs any way I could."

As Hatter starter Will Dorsey and later Joe Dye continued to hold the potent Buccaneers' offense at bay, the Hatters strung together a final two-out rally to push the game to its final 7-2 margin. With two down and no one on base in the bottom of the eighth again the bottom of the order came through as Ryan Lashley, Brennan and Robert Bruce strung together three consecutive hits.

"I'm glad we [got those two-out hits] because twice early in the game we had [a runner] at third base with less than two out - which early in the year, we would cash that in every time," Pete Dunn, the Stetson head coach and 2011 A-Sun Coach of the Year said. "To be able to redeem ourselves with those two-out hits were huge. Good teams find a way to do that - and I think we're pretty good. We're beat up, but you have to come up big this time of year."

The Hatters are hardly off the mat just yet. They face as many as four more elimination games to claim the title that has eluded the six-time champions the past four years.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Brandon Loves Tournament Atmosphere

Over the past two seasons Mercer's Brandon Love has made three appearances on the Dugan Field pitching mound. At the conclusion of all three trips to said mound, Love received the traditional postgame handshakes as the winning pitcher.

Wednesday's win, a 6-4 decision against Kennesaw State extended the Bears' recent run of team success on the Dugan Diamond. While Love improved to 3-0 at Dugan Field, the Bears own seven wins in their last eight contests at Lipscomb. They won the 2010 A-Sun Championship with a 4-0 record and they won last year's series against the Bisons by a 2-1 margin.

"It was huge for us to get a great start from [Brandon]" Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. "He got in a little trouble early, but to his credit he settled in gave us another great outing. He's been good for two years and if we're going to have a chance to win this thing, you've got to have some great individual performances."

Last year, Love pitched the Bears into the title game by shutting down the potent ETSU offense. Over eight innings of work, he allowed only one unearned run. He spoke of the difference between regular-season outings and postseason starts.

"When everyone in the dugout is behind you, it's really to disappoint them," Love said. "You're out there battling for everyone else and luckily we got a win tonight. These games [have] much more energy. Everyone is ready to bring it and you really don't want to fall into that loser's bracket."

The Bears hope Love's start further continues to follow the similar path the 2010 Championship team established. Last year's team entered the tournament by winning 13 of their final 16 before rattling off the four straight wins. This year, they closed with 12 wins in their final 15 games. By beating the Owls, the Bears draw the opponent they had to beat twice during the 2010 Championship, Jacksonville, in a matchup of two Wednesday winners.

"We came into this tournament again hot and the team chemistry, we haven't missed a bit from last year," Love said. "I think this is real special group."

High-Powered Offenses No Match for Top Pitching

The second and third ranked offenses in the Atlantic Sun squared off in game two of the A-Sun Baseball Championship and it wasn’t the batter’s box that showcased the fireworks, but rather the pitching mound.

Jacksonville’s Matthew Tomshaw and ETSU’s John Long highlighted the game with 12 combined strikeouts, five hits apiece and two earned runs allowed – both by Long. However, Tomshaw came away with the win and complete game – his second of the season – to give the Bucs the 2-1 victory.

“Tomshaw was incredible today,” stated JU Head Coach Terry Alexander. “He was magnificent and that’s what you need to have in tournament play - your ace has to step up and be there for you and he was there for us today.”

A unanimous A-Sun All-Conference selection, Dan Gulbransen, who recorded the game-winning two-RBI double in the fifth inning, knew that the opening game against the Bucs (No. 32 in the RPI) would be a dogfight.

“You can’t describe what (Tomshaw) did for us today going against a good ETSU team," the sophomore said. There wasn’t much offense to be had here today so you have to scratch and claw for every run.”

Throughout the season, ETSU averaged seven runs per outing, but could only muster a run on an infield error in the fifth inning, which gave them a brief lead over the Dolphins. The win was Tomshaw’s eighth of the season, which ties him for second most in the A-Sun, but more importantly advances JU to the winners’ bracket of day two and look to claim their fourth conference title in the past nine years.

Tomshaw’s dominant performance was nearly broken up in the ninth as ETSU tallied two hits with two outs to get the JU bullpen back up into action, but the senior pitcher never faded in his confidence.

“Every outing I feel as if I can go nine innings and when ETSU got two hits in the ninth inning all I thought was they weren’t going to score.”

His thought rang true as a grounder back to the mound ended the game and put the Dolphins up against the winner of Kennesaw State and Mercer at 7 p.m.

Bruins Continue Successful Run Against Hatters

In Belmont's 15-3 defeat of Stetson in the first game of the 2011 Atlantic Sun Baseball Championships, the Bruins evened the all-time series at 16, but the recently history of this 10-year rivalry has tilted heavily northward as with Wednesday's win, the Bruins improved to 13-4 vs the Hatters over the last five years.

From the day the schedule was unveiled, Belmont knew its A-Sun regular season would conclude with a trip to DeLand. That trip looked more daunting after the Hatters opened the year with a three-game sweep of Georgia and compiled a 26-7 home record while the Bruins opened 3-8 in league play.

The Bruins got hot and won 11 of 13 conference contests and could have entered the Stetson series with a cushion on seventh-place FGCU but dropped two of three to the Eagles in the series immediately preceding the showdown with the Hatters. After a loss in the Thursday contest cut the Bruin advantage on the Eagles to one game, Matt Hamann and Nate Woods pitched the Bruins into the championship field with consecutive wins. The duo held the Hatters to only three earned runs in 13 innings of work.

"We got off to such a rough start in early conference play that we’ve almost been in a must-win situation for the last month, month-and-a-half," Belmont head coach Dave Jarvis said. "Our kids have responded to that. We’ve got really great upper classmen…and they’ve just turned our team around by their will. I think today was a reflection of that."

After beating the Hatters with is arm, Woods used his glove and bat to help secure victory. His acrobatic catch against the fence in fourth served as a prelude to his two-run home run in back-breaking fifth inning in which the Bruins extended a 3-0 lead to 7-0.

"[That catch] knocked the wind out of me, my lip almost caught on the fence like getting caught like a fish," Woods said. "I’m just glad I came out alive."

Hamann took to the mound on Wednesday and came close to matching his eight-inning, two-run effort from five days earlier. He took carried a no-hitter through 4.2 innings and turned in a six-inning, one-run effort to claim a school-record-tying ninth win.

"Matt’s mental toughness is incomparable," Jarvis said. "We took him from the back end of our bullpen in an extremely valuable role…our starting pitching was faltering and he stepped forward. We teamed [him and Josh Davis] with Chase Brookshire on our weekends and that’s been our difference."

With Brookshire waiting to pitch in Belmont's upcoming game, perhaps the Bruins could be lined up for a long week in the Championship.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Championship Team; Five Years in the Making

Five seasons ago, Jacksonville finished dead last in the Atlantic Sun Conference with a 4-14 mark and managed only 15 wins throughout the year.

That was Amanda Lehotak’s first season as the head coach of Jacksonville and also marked the beginning of a steady climb up the A-Sun softball ladder for the Dolphins. JU claimed five league wins in 2009 and finished 11th out of 12th in the first year of collegiate softball for now seniors; Katie Kelly, Kat Engler and Jackie Samuels.

The following season, the Dolphins qualified for the 2009 A-Sun Softball Championship for only the second time in program history. As the four seed in the tournament, Jacksonville dropped both of their games by a total six runs, but the team gained valuable championship experience with Amanda Schmidt, Melissa Morales and Sarah Sigrest all seeing action as freshmen.

In 2010, Lehotak and the Dolphins has a breakthrough season by winning 33 games and posting only the program’s second winning record since joining the Atlantic Sun. The team added key pieces in with freshmen Olivia Kline, Sarah Simon, Morgan Kibler and transfer Annike Don, which helped the team win their first A-Sun Championship game since 2005 after finishing the season 10-10 in conference play.

With a balanced attack throughout the lineup, Jacksonville tore up the Atlantic Sun schedule with an 18-2 record to win the regular-season title, the program’s first. JU finished on a 12-game winning streak to enter the A-Sun Championship on the campus of USC Upstate as the top-seed.

In Spartanburg, Jacksonville saw contributions from every class. Starting with the underclassmen on Thursday with sophomore Sarah Simon’s two-RBI single in the second inning to key a 4-1 victory against Mercer, which advanced the Dolphins to Friday against Lipscomb where a freshman, Karson Tuck, drove a delivery over the left-field wall for a three-run trip around the bases in the bottom of the sixth inning when it looked like Lipscomb would take down the top seed.

On Championship Saturday, it was the upper-classmen that controlled the game with three seniors seeing action in the game including Kelly starting the game at short. Schmidt, a junior, made her mark on the game with two homers, while fellow junior Sigrest dealed mowed down Lipscomb batters with a complete game three-hitter for her third win and to earn the Tournament MVP honor.

The 7-1 win completed the Jacksonville turnaround in five short seasons under the tutelage of Lehotak and the coach put it best when describing the turnaround.

“Five seasons ago, we sold the seniors of a dream of winning the conference championship and to accomplish that this season in their final year makes me feel like a proud mother.”

See the Ball, Hit the Ball

It’s a simple mantra: See the Ball, Hit the Ball

And that’s exactly what Lipscomb did on Friday in their elimination showdown with Campbell by notching seven runs on eight hits by seven different players.

Mackenzie Tucker led LU with two hits against the Camels occurring in the first and sixth frames, while her first baseman Kristen Sturdivant kicked off the game in the first with a two-RBI single to give Lipscomb a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“Our goal every game is to score first to take pressure off of our pitching and Kristen came through with a big hit in the first and battle throughout the count and got the big hit,” said LU Head Coach Kristin Ryman of their early-game strategy. “It took pressure off us early and the confidence is contagious with this team once we saw her get the hit everyone else wanted to follow.”

Having to face two of the dominant pitchers in the league in their first two contests – USC Upstate’s Morgan Childers and Jacksonville’s Sarah Sigrest – Lipscomb was held to only two runs so the offensive explosion was just what Lipscomb needed to return to the title game against Jacksonville.

“We knew that Campbell’s pitching staff was more of a changeup team and we knew they were going to keep us off balance so we had to adjust early and just stay back and get the first runs,” added Tucker.

For Lipscomb to claim back-to-back titles, they will need to defeat Jacksonville twice on Saturday in the championship showdown and if they stay true to their hitting strategy the Lady Bisons have has to like their chances.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

March Win Translates to A-Sun Success for Sigrest

Sarah Sigrest entered the March 17th showdown with No. 22 Texas A&M in the USF The Game Tournament with a 7-3 record for the 15-9 Jacksonville Dolphins. The A-Sun Pitcher of the Year, Sigrest, left that contest with a one-hit complete game 3-1 victory against the ranked Aggies and the confidence both her and JU needed to cruise to a 18-2 Atlantic Sun record.

“We realized after that game how good we actually were and that is when we started to turn it around and that we could be one of the best teams in the conference,” Sigrest said of the win.

Since the victory against the Big 12 Conference foe, Sigrest stands at 25-5 on the year with an ERA below one and the Dolphins behind four A-Sun First Team All-Conference members are 42-14. The 42 wins marks a program record as does Sigrest’s 25 wins, which helped JU to their program's first top seed in the Atlantic Sun Softball Championship.

Jacksonville entered their Thursday contest with Mercer in an interesting situation since Mercer had one game under the belt – a win against Campbell – while the Dolphins hadn’t played in a game since a week prior against Stetson.

Despite the week lay-off and early-game jitters from both Jacksonville and Sigrest; which included two-straight balls and two Mercer batters reaching base in the first inning, the A-Sun Pitcher of the Year led the Dolphins to a 4-1 victory against the Bears with a four-hit complete game and moved JU two wins away from their first A-Sun Championship title.

“Sarah is a gamer and today I was interested to see if she would come out fearless and she did," stated JU Head Coach Amanda Lehotak. "She’s confident and she went right after Mercer and wasn’t afraid to get hit and she just battled. She is a competitor.”

Following a 12-win freshman campaign, Sigrest struggled with a 6-6 record and a 3.43 ERA as a sophomore, but a dedicated summer training routine developed the junior hurler turned her into the dominant pitcher in the A-Sun this season.

“She worked really hard this summer so Sarah deserves all the credit," added Lehotak, the A-Sun Coach of the Year. "I still believe the turning point for her was the win against Texas A&M because they have a tremendous hitting team and came out fearless in that game because she knew she had nothing to lose and the win allowed her to develop into the (A-Sun) Pitcher of the Year.”

With at least two games remaining in her junior season, Sigrest and Jacksonville are sure to be a force next season as well.

Camels Digs the Long Ball

Two swings of the bat on Thursday kept Campbell’s season alive and hopes for a third Atlantic Sun Softball Championship title.

The Camels hit 51 pitches over the fence this season – 17 more than their opponents – and according to head coach Drew Peterson it was no fluke to see the long ball in play against Kennesaw State in the tournament’s first elimination game.

“The long ball is a part of what we want to do offensively. We like to mix speed with power and have that balance throughout our lineup. The main thing with our girls is we want them to make confident swings, swing at good pitches and believe in themselves we feel in the course of a seven inning game two or three of our players will connect on one and give us a chance to win.”

Campbell’s balance was on display as the third batter, Lauren Stephan, and sixth batter, Raven Lee, both connected on three-run homers to propel the Camels to the 7-1 victory. Lee’s homer in the fourth inning put CU ahead, while Lauren Stephan’s four-bagger the following inning put the game out of reach.

With four homers this season against the Owls, Stephan showcased Campbell’s batting mentality in her third at-bat after failing to connect in her first two hitting appearances.

“I struck out in my first two at-bats so I went up there in my third try and I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team and give us a few more runs so I tried to battle with (Abbey Meixel) in the at-bat and then I saw a quality pitch and I swung at it.”

With elite pitching squads on all the remaining teams in the tournament, Peterson and the Camels are confident in their hitting prowess.

“We can’t in any way give (opposing pitchers) too much credit because they have to throw the ball over the plate three times and we only have to hit one of them and we have to keep that mentality against them.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spartans' Win Sends Coach Hawkins Packing

With their 7-5 win against Kennesaw State, USC Upstate not only advanced to the next round of the 2011 Atlantic Sun Softball Championship but also sent their head coach Chris Hawkins packing for Las Vegas in December.

The victory at Cyrill Stadium gave Hawkins his 600th victory in his 17-year career and earns him recognition at the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Convention for his milestone at the end of the year.

“I have been here for 17 years and I’ve been through a lot of battles and wars and won some and lost some, but to get to 600 and still be able to walk and breathe is a good feeling and I couldn’t have done it without everyone as this program and institution,” Hawkins stated of his accomplishment.

For Hawkins, the timing of the win accumulation is more important as it advances the Spartans to a rematch with Lipscomb, who swept Upstate in the regular season, and keeps the Spartans alive for another game.

“It’s a great feeling to go to sleep tonight knowing that if we lose our next game we are still in the tournament and it’s great for our program because we are trying to build here at USC Upstate and this is a big stepping stone for us.”

Not only did Hawkins reach 600 wins, but the Spartans claimed their 42nd win of the season, a program record, just ahead of last year’s mark of 41. For an institution that made the jump to Division I in 2007, USC Upstate has already accomplished a lot with a share of the 2008 A-Sun Regular Season title and then taking runner-up at last year’s A-Sun Championship.

“In Division II we were always up there competing and I knew when we went to Division I any little mistake would hurt us, but we changed our program philosophy in what we were trying to accomplish and we really work hard on defense and luckily we have the pitching that kept us in games,” Hawkins said of the transition.

Now the Spartans’ squad stands three wins away from an A-Sun Championship title and a trip of the their own to a NCAA Regional.

Pieces Fall Into Place for Bears

The 2011 Atlantic Sun Conference season started off rough for Mercer with a 1-6 record in the first seven league games including sweeps at the hands of Campbell and Jacksonville to kick off the season.

However, the Bears rattled off nine wins in the final 14 games to clinch a spot in the A-Sun Championship as the five seed following a clutch sweep of Kennesaw State at home to finish off the slate.

“The start of the season had to do with us figuring out the chemistry of our team and how our team was going to play well together and who would fit into the right piece of the puzzle as we went from the start to today’s game there have been quite a few changes to our lineup,” said Mercer head coach Mike Raynor

One of those changes showed up in the tournament opener with senior pitcher Kari Chambers starting off the game and fellow senior hurler Jenni Holtz coming in to pick up her 12th win of the season by allowing no runs in four innings of work.

“For the first three years at Mercer, Jenni (Holtz) had been a starter for us and has most of the pitching records at Mercer, but she has taken on the role of a relief pitcher and she is doing an outstanding job there by giving a completely different look to opposing batters and she performed well today,” Raynor added.

Despite only averaging six hits a game in A-Sun play, Mercer’s bats were on fire to start the conference championship with nine base knocks through six innings but the Orange and Black were unable to convert by leaving 10 runners stranded on the base paths. Fortunately just like the early season start Raynor knew the team would turn it around and Tiffany Phillips did just that with a single up the middle to score Kassie Bailey and give Mercer the decisive run.

“You can get frustrated with that or you can continue to stay excited about it and I continued to stay excited because I knew if we continued to set the table with base runners eventually someone would step up and get a hit for us and fortunately Tiffany Phillips did for us.”

Mercer now gets a chance to prove they have completely solved the puzzle by facing top-seeded Jacksonville on Thursday.