Luke Bolanos, Director of Athletic Communications
DAHLONEGA, Ga. – It took quite some time to shake off the rust from a 25-day layoff for the 2nd-seeded Lincoln Memorial University softball team against third-seeded Young Harris Thursday afternoon in the program’s first NCAA Tournament battle in a two-year stretch. But once the Lady Railsplitters picked up a much-needed dose of momentum in the bottom of the 6th trailing by a single score, the 5th-ranked team in the nation reached deep inside their bag of tricks to remain in the winner’s bracket with a come-from-behind thriller.
Overcoming a 2nd-inning home run for a photo-finish 2-1 victory over the Mountain Lions, LMU (37-6) will jump from one national powerhouse to another less than 24 hours from now, preparing for a 12:00 noon first pitch against the hosting North Georgia Nighthawks on Friday. The winner of that showdown between the highest-ranked teams in the Southeast earns a route to the Regional Championship on Saturday inside Haines & Carolyn Hill Stadium.
When the Lady Railsplitters tussled with YHC just over seven weeks ago in the state of Georgia, things were evenly matched for the most part between the two non-conference adversaries as the blue and gray took the opener before suffering a blowout to end the day. 51 days later and over three weeks since LMU participated in their first ever SAC title bout, Head Coach Ritchie Richardson‘s unit needed some time to regain their footing before delivering the game-clinching blow as the finish line approached.
A fierce session of one-upmanship between All-Southeast Region pitchers Emma Frost and Jill Dixon resulted in 13 combined hits and only three runs put together across a game that featured virtually no room for error on either side. Lincoln Memorial quickly found themselves lagging behind once Haylie Shope lobbed a solo HR to right center to give the Mountain Lions an early cushion. Little did they know at the time, but that blast turned out to be the only run of the afternoon for YHC in the barnburner.
Leaving a total of six baserunners stranded after five completed innings, the Lady Railsplitters’ sluggish offensive start left seeds of doubt planted in the opening round of the double-elimination bracket. However, an Emma Webb single right down the hatch in the lead-off spot for the 6th period doused LMU with the hope they required to pull out the sudden win.
Young Harris inadvertently aided the blue and gray during the rally, kickstarted by a perfectly-placed Audrey Petoskey bunt that led to an ill-advised overthrow by the Mountain Lion catcher, allowing Webb to scurry to 3rd. Sophomore Madison Henry’s fielder’s choice scenario in the next at-bat hesitated the YHC defense, giving Webb just enough time to sprint back to 3rd and slide in safely to gush the bases loaded.
Rightfielder Grace Cochran, one of the team’s most clutch performers all throughout their blistering 2021 slate, ripped an RBI single down the left side to even the odds at one apiece, serving as arguably the most crucial swing of the season. South Atlantic Conference Player of the Year Ty-Kella Goins took the flurry one step further with a laser right past the Young Harris shortstop, scoring pinch runner and Dahlonega native Victoria Mounce to put LMU in front for the first time where they would stay.
Frost’s sixth and final strikeout in the last at-bat finalized the triumph with one runner occupying 1st base, cementing the 17th complete game of the spring for the SAC Pitcher of the Year. Tossing 116 times in the grueling postseason joust, Frost limited the Mountain Lions to seven hits altogether after their hot opening, advancing LMU to the next line in the Southeast Regional bracket.
Continuing their reputation as two of the most consistent batters on the roster, Goins and Webb went a combined 4-7 at the plate in the one-run decision. Third baseman Kelsie Tuggle came inches away from booming her first home run of the season in the bottom of the 4th, bouncing off the leftfield wall for one of two LMU doubles on the afternoon.
Six different Young Harris batters managed at least one hit in defeat, topped by Maddie Urquiola’s 2-3 showing before an ejection during the Lady Railsplitters’ 6th-inning resurgence. The Mountain Lions were forced to compete once more following the final pitch against 4th-seeded Anderson in an elimination game held immediately after the blue and gray’s tight W.
In what’s sure to be the most anticipated game of the entire 2021 campaign, LMU will take the field on Friday to face off with the #1 seed in the Southeast Region and #2-ranked squad in the country, as North Georgia meets the Lady Railsplitters in a battle between two top five programs on one of the grandest stages of the season.
The Nighthawks’ resume speaks for itself entering the Regional Tournament clash, with UNG possessing a 38-5 overall record behind a 16-game winning streak heading into tomorrow’s duel with the blue and gray. Hours before the Lady Railsplitters outlasted Young Harris, North Georgia got the better of Anderson on their home field by a 3-1 difference to remain in the winner’s bracket as the top seed, now gearing up for one of the most hyped potential matchups in the nation seeing its reality on Friday.
Since first taking on the Nighthawks back in 2007, Lincoln Memorial hasn’t fared favorably in the past at 3-11 all-time against the Peach Belt Conference powerhouse. LMU did wrangle in a 1-0 victory over UNG in March of 2020 at Dahlonega last season, which began the team’s 17-game winning streak that bled into this semester.