Luke Bolanos, Director of Athletic Communications
GREENEVILLE – In a rollercoaster of a day for the top-seeded and seventh-ranked Lincoln Memorial University Softball team, the Lady Railsplitters ran through the South Atlantic Conference Tournament’s Semifinal Round on Sunday afternoon with their third victory this season over in-state rival Carson-Newman, before hitting a brick wall in the program’s first ever league title bout against another Volunteer State adversary, they being sixth-seeded Tusculum in their own house.
Unleashing 11 hits against the Eagles in the round of four before giving up the same number to the Pioneers to end the weekend on a sour note approaching a lengthy wait until the NCAA Division II Southeast Regionals, LMU started the day riding high with a 7-2 triumph over C-N before crashing and burning against TU by an 8-0 clip, only the second time this semester in 42 outings that the blue and gray was held without a run.
Denied their first SAC Tournament Championship as the #1 seed for the second straight postseason, the Lady Railsplitters (36-6, 20-4 SAC) now must bide their time until the Southeast Regional bracket unveiling in mid-May, forced to step aside while Tusculum blitzed past the top three seeds in the conference on their way to receiving an automatic bid to the big dance.
SAC Tournament Semifinal – #7 (1) Lincoln Memorial def. (5) Carson-Newman 7-2
Determined to erase the memory of LMU’s Jefferson City sweep earlier in the season by a combined margin of 9-0 just over one month back, the Eagles managed to make things interesting halfway through the SAC tourney’s semifinal round, although the 5th-seed couldn’t keep up with the trio of Audrey Petoskey, Sierra Hucklebee, and McKenzie Henry, who added up for a 7-10 performance with the bat in their hands.
The nature of the opener on Sunday resembled the defensive slugfest that was the theme when the two schools met earlier in the semester, that is for the first five turns at bat. Once the Lady Railsplitters warmed up in the bottom of the 3rd, a four-score burst for Head Coach Ritchie Richardson‘s squad opened the door for what turned out to be 18 combined hits between the Tennessee rivals.
Once Henry twisted the lid offensively for the blue and gray, lead-off batter and SAC Player of the Year Ty-Kella Goins lined up her only RBI of the day with a single down the middle to give LMU an early advantage. Hucklebee and Petoskey extended that lead threefold moments later, both on nearly identical plays to Goins’ RBI on a pair of line-drive base hits.
Suddenly trailing by a 4-0 clip, the Eagles began to mount some offense in the top of the 4th with back-to-back RBI-doubles from Shannon Smith and Katie Eakes to trim the lead in two. The momentary bend in the Lady Railsplitter defense would be the only time in the game that C-N posed a significant threat, however, with the blue and gray ending the contest on a 3-0 surge for the second straight time, having done the same in the Quarterfinal round win over UVA Wise 48 hours earlier.
Racking up her third RBI of the game in as many trips to the plate, Petoskey curbed the momentum back in LMU’s favor with yet another single past the pitcher that scored Hucklebee in the bottom of the 5thperiod. The designated player/catcher found home herself once third baseman Kelsie Tuggle singled down the rightfield line, calming the Lady Railsplitters back into a comfortable lead of 6-2.
The Semifinal battle was thrown in the bin after Hucklebee notched her third run of the afternoon on a single from Emma Webb in the 6th frame, providing the five-run margin of victory that Coach Richardson’s club needed to clock in their first ever appearance in the Championship round.
Little did the team know, but their scoring for the day had come to an end as the bulk of the offense had come and gone. Nonetheless, the Bailey Griffith/Emma Frost pitching duo ensured the Lady Railsplitters at least advanced to the title round, with the latter gaining the W in 3.2 innings of relief, improving her overall record to 18-2 for the conference’s Pitcher of the Year.
SAC Tournament Championship – (6) Tusculum def. #7 (1) Lincoln Memorial 8-0
In one of the most torrid displays of batting in the history of the South Atlantic Conference’s postseason, the Pioneers nuked the ball in the Championship outing with five home runs, including a five-score 5thinning, to run away with the league tournament title for the first time in school history. Emily Sappington, Alexis Grampp, Chloe Freischmidt, and Anna Alloway each sailed one over the fence, twice in Alloway’s case as the Pioneers ran over LMU in the weekend finale.
A pair of solo HR’s from Sappington and Alloway in the 2nd and 3rdinnings already put the Lady Railsplitters in a dire position, having thrown Frost in a continuation from the Semi’s until she was relieved after four innings by Griffith and junior Hayley Tamaro. Things quickly went from bad to worse for LMU as the lead grew larger with each long-ball from the host institution.
All eight of the Pioneers’ runs came off a dinger, with the 5th stanza signifying the beginning of the end for the Lady Railsplitters once Alloway drew up her second homer of the game that also scored two other base runners, before Grampp tallied a two-run bomb of her own just two batters later to put the top seed in an insurmountable 7-0 hole.
Freischmidt rubbed salt in the wound with one final dinger in the top of the 7th on Sunday evening, where the Lady Railsplitters had little-to-no counter offense as they took perhaps their most lopsided defeat of the spring in the final meeting before the Southeast Regionals.
Exploding for 16 runs in a Quarterfinal blowout over 3rd-seed Catawba two days prior, Tusculum managed to unseat Anderson in the Semi’s with a low-scoring 2-1 barnburner before opening the floodgates against LMU. By virtue of their SAC Championship achievement, the Pioneers receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, perhaps stealing a bid in the process. TU wasn’t listed among the eight teams under consideration for the Southeast Regionals in last Wednesday’s first set of rankings before embarking on a Cinderella run through the top three seeds in the conference in their own backyard.
It now becomes a waiting game for the Lady Railsplitters after falling short in their quest for a league tournament title, forced to wait until May 19th to compete again in the opening round of the Regional Tournament in Dahlonega, Georgia. Based off of their 36-6 overall record and overwhelming South Atlantic Conference Regular Season crown, Coach Richardson’s unit holds a very strong chance at a top three seed in the bracket, but will have to wait another week and a half before knowing their placement in the first official seeding of the highest-ranked schools in the Southeast Region.