USC Upstate coach Chris Hawkins could not watch the last at bat for Lipscomb in the top of the seventh inning.
Three times during the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament the Lady Bisons had come back and won games in their final at bat. Even though his Spartans had forced a game two Saturday at Draper Diamond on the Lipscomb campus with a 4-1 win earlier in the day Hawkins was not overly confident about game two.
“I have doubts about playing Lipscomb anytime I play them,” Hawkins said wearing his white championship T-shirt stained with red Gatorade. “They are well-coached. They always seem to show up. And when they get down they fight harder. They don’t lie down and quit.”
This is the first A-Sun Softball Tournament Championship for the Spartans.
“I told our players not to let their emotions get to them,” Hawkins said. “It is humbling time for us. It is not a cocky time.
“It is time where we learn how to be adults. We worked hard for this and we need to know how to handle it.”
With two runners on base and the tying run at the plate, Lady Bisons’ third baseman
Paige Neely represented the winning run. She ended the game with a long fly ball to center that just fell short of going over the fence.
“To be honest with you until that last out I didn’t think we were going to win,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t know if the ball was going out or if we were going to catch it. I couldn’t look.
“Back in 2010 they pummeled us in the championship game. It was good for our program and our team to go to a very good team’s field and win two games. That is asking a whole lot. It was extremely hard to do. Lipscomb is going to be as good as most of the regional tournament teams.”
The Spartans, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, prevailed 7-5 in game two. With the championship they have earned the A-Sun’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Like most coaches at the start of a season Hawkins felt like his team had what it would take to win the conference championship.
“I knew we had the talent,” Hawkins said. “Last year I started six freshmen that are sophomores this year."
“I really thought we would be where are at and have an opportunity to do this. That is all you can ask for.”
The final two weeks of the regular season kept the Spartans off the field in game situations due to rain. But Hawkins and his staff used the time to work with hitters in small groups and individual sessions to correct a variety of problems.
It worked. In the two games against Lipscomb in the championship finals they connected for 15 hits including three home runs, two triples and two doubles.
“We stopped lunging at balls,” Hawkins said. “We started getting back to some of the basic things we were doing.
“If you go to bat 10 times and you get out seven of those 10 times in this league .300 is still pretty good. They have to understand they are going to fail more than they are going succeed with that bat.”
The Spartans were leading the country in hitting as a team until midseason, but dropped off the last part of the season. Hawkins thinks the extra work during the two weeks helped to remind them that maybe they weren’t as good as they thought they were despite batting more than .330 as a team heading into the conference final.
“We worked on becoming better hitters and not taking it for granted that we hit well,”
Hawkins said. “We did a lot of work. We did extensive work with two-to-four batters at a time."
“I told them to work on their strong points and not try to make their weak points better.
They had started worrying about what they couldn’t do instead of what they could do. I wanted to get them refocused.”
In the two championship finals games with Lipscomb the top four hitters for the Spartans - Meredith Barnes, Ericka Harris, Shellie Robinson and Cheyenne Griffin – combined for all four hits, all four runs and all four RBI in game one. In game two they had six hits and four RBI and scored three runs.
“When the batters at the top of the order are hitting well and running around with smiles on their faces it pumps everybody up,” Hawkins said. “And that is another thing we worked on during those two weeks off.
“If you are going to be a leader on this team you can’t do it when you are just doing well. You have to set an example when you are doing badly. I think we stepped up in that category too.”