Tuscaloosa, Ala. – The USC Upstate softball team ended its run in the Tuscaloosa Regional of the NCAA Tournament with a 3-0 loss to Western Kentucky Saturday night, just three hours after securing the school's first ever victory in an NCAA Division I tournament against Jacksonville State.
Upstate fell to 42-12 on the year with the loss, closing out a magical season that saw the Spartans claim the program's first-ever A-Sun Tournament championship and the school's first-ever berth in the NCAA Division I Tournament for any team sport. Upstate tied the Division I era school record with 42 wins and closed out the season in the Tuscaloosa Regional hosted by the defending national champions, Alabama. Upstate also secured the school's first national ranking in a major Top 25 poll when it was ranked No. 24 in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 poll on April 9.
"We made three errors in the game and I don't really know what to say about that," said Upstate head coach Chris Hawkins. "It's a disappointment, but there's nothing we can do to change what happened. We didn't hit the ball well enough to win, but to three unearned runs, we should at least still be playing. Give credit to Western Kentucky. They are a very good team and did what they needed to win the game. We had a great year and we did a lot of great stuff. Our players got a taste of this atmosphere and I know it is going to fuel them over the summer."
With the win, Western Kentucky improved to 43-17 on the year and advanced to play Alabama in the first of a possible two games on Sunday to determine the regional championship. Sunday's first game will begin at 1:00 p.m. Central.
Three hours after defeating Jacksonville State, 8-0, in the first elimination game of the Tuscaloosa Regional, Upstate faced Western Kentucky for the second time in the regional in the final elimination game of the day. Upstate faced Western Kentucky in the regional opener, falling 3-0 Friday afternoon. The Spartans managed only two hits against WKU starter Emily Rousseau to fall into the loser's bracket. Upstate claimed the win over Jacksonville State earlier Friday to move into the final elimination game of the regional Friday evening.
Anna Miller (Portland, Ore.) got the start in the final elimination game of the Tuscaloosa Regional against Western Kentucky an hour after tossing a perfect game against Jacksonville State. She again got a great defensive play from shortstop Maddison Kieffer (Middleburg, Fla.) in the top of the first. With a runner on second after a walk and ground out, Kieffer dove deep in the hole for the second out of the inning, keeping the runner at second. Miller then got the third out of the inning on a fly out to right field.
Upstate also had a scoring opportunity in the first inning, putting runners on first and second with two outs. However, Western Kentucky starter Mallorie Sulaski got a ground out to end the Upstate threat.
Upstate threatened again in the second inning. Kendall Settlemyre (Hickory, N.C.) drew a walk with one out and moved to second on a passed ball. However, a ground out to second ended the second consecutive threat for the Spartans.
After tossing eight hitless innings Saturday, including three against Western Kentucky, Miller gave up her first hit of the day in the fourth. It led to a bit of a jam for the Spartans. Olivia Watkins singled to center to lead off the inning and stole second. She moved to third on a ground out, putting a runner 60 feet away with one out and the heart of the Lady Topper batting order due up.
Western Kentucky's Amanda Thomas, the cleanup hitter in the lineup, hit a comebacker to Miller. Watkins took off for home, but Miller's throw home, was in the dirt and Watkins scored for the game's first run. Thomas advanced to second on the throw. Miller recovered to get a ground out and a strikeout to get out of the inning with a 1-0 deficit.
Upstate attempted to answer in the bottom of the frame, but Sulaski pitched out of the jam. Cheyenne Griffin (Moore, S.C.) singled to lead off the inning and moved to second on Dana Landers' (Simpsonville, S.C.) sacrifice bunt. However, Sulaski got a ground out and a strikeout to get out of the inning.
Upstate got into another jam in the top of the fifth inning. Shawna Sadler singled with one out and moved to third on Preslie Cruce's two-out single. Cruce moved to second on the throw to put runners on second and third with two outs.
Upstate entered the game leading the nation with a .983 fielding percentage. However, its defense failed to close out the inning as Western Kentucky plated two runs to open a 3-0 lead. A throw down to third went into left field to allow Sadler to score from third and the throw in from left went to the middle of the infield to allow Cruce to score as the Lady Toppers opened a 3-0 lead on two costly errors on one play. Miller was taken out of the game after tossing another solid game in one day. Hannah Alexander (Lexington, N.C.) replaced Miller to close out the inning.
"A lot of people asked us about Anna Miller getting the starts today since she hadn't pitched as much (as our other two main starting pitchers Jamie Ujvari and Hannah Alexander). They said they hadn't seen her much and asked if someone was hurt," Said Hawkins. "She was the Junior College Pitcher of the Year in California last year. She had some control problems early, but has really improved here late in the season. She is a force to be reckoned with and I am extremely proud of her."
Although having a better approach at the plate in its second game against Western Kentucky, Upstate still had a hard time getting any production against the Lady Toppers. Upstate only had two hits in the Tuscaloosa Regional opener on Friday. The Spartans again managed just two hits against the Lady Toppers Saturday.
Western Kentucky looked to put the game out of reach in the sixth inning. Ciara Garcia led off the inning with a single and the Lady Toppers put runners on second and third on Thomas' double. However, Alexander stood firm and retired the next three batters on a strikeout and two pop flies to get out of the inning and keep the Spartans within striking distance down 3-0.
Upstate couldn't push anything across in the sixth and Alexander kept WKU from adding to its lead in the seventh as Upstate came up in the bottom of the seventh down 3-0 and needing a rally. Sulaski, though, retired the side in order to secure the win for Western Kentucky.
Miller took the loss for Upstate, falling to 6-2 on the year in a gutsy performance. Sulaski improved to 13-8 on the year with the win.