GVSU softball wins Midwest Regional Championship
Lakers use walk-off, upset and revenge to gut out five tournament games
Sky high into foul territory. When the ball finally came down, the Grand Valley State softball team threw its gloves up in celebration.
The fourth-seeded Lakers won the Midwest Regional 1 Championship in Indianapolis by showing a lot of heart in four nail-biting victories from May 5-7.
GVSU started the weekend with a unique 4-3 walk-off win over fifth-seeded Southern Indiana, but dropped into the elimination bracket after losing to upset-minded, eight seed Trevecca Nazarene by a score of 5-1.
The Lakers topped the hosts and top seed (No. 2 nationally) University of Indianapolis, 5-4, to stay alive and then faced Trevecca Nazarene in a pair of win-or-go-home games for the championship on May 7.
Revenge was sweet. GVSU took game one 4-2 and punched its ticket to the Midwest Super Regional with a 2-1 victory in the rematch.
“We are feeling pretty good right now – a lot of smiles,” said GVSU head coach Dana Callihan. “Gutsy. Teamwork. Resilience. We did what we needed to do.”
The double elimination regional portion of the NCAA Division II Tournament didn’t start as well as it finished for the Lakers.
Junior pitcher Ellie Balbach surrendered a run in the first and third inning to Southern Indiana and GVSU’s offense was nonexistent. The Lakers went 10 up and 10 down before sophomore Kaylie Rhynard laid down a bunt single to break up Sarah Owens’ perfect game bid.
Senior clean-up hitter McKenze Supernaw eventually drove Rhynard home on a line drive to center and freshman Shannon Flaherty tied the score later in the inning on an infield single.
“Hits are so contagious,” Rhynard said. “Mac (Supernaw) had a hug at-bat, she probably saw over 10 pitches, and came up big. After getting the first run from that hit, then it was like everybody started hitting.”
The Lakers took a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning when Horvath scored from second base on a sacrifice bunt combined with an error on throw to first base.
Balbach was replaced in the circle by senior Sara Andrasik in the seventh inning after the first two Southern Indiana batters reached base on a fielding error and a bunt single.
Another Screaming Eagles base hit and GLVC Player of the Year Haley Hodges came to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out. Hodges shattered Southern Indiana’s school record this year for most home runs (22) and RBIs (71) in a single season.
“It was definitely intense to watch,” Balbach said. “Nerve-racking because I couldn’t do anything about it. But, at the same time, I was able to trust my teammates even more.”
Andrasik held Hodges to a RBI sacrifice fly, then a failed suicide squeeze and a groundout keep the score tied at three.
In the bottom half, Owens lost her command in the circle and issued three straight walks.
Rhynard stepped in and stood still. Ball one. Ball two. Ball three… Pitching change.
“I’ve never seen it before – especially with (the pitcher brought in) being at first base – she didn’t even have time to warm up,” Callihan said. “It was a gutsy call on their coach’s part and it worked in our favor.”
Ball four. Rhynard took the free pass for the rare walk-off walk.
“It’s really… unheroic, but I was ready to hit,” Rhynard said. “The other pitcher came in and she had to throw me a strike. Even if she had thrown a strike, I still might have taken one more (pitch) just because of the situation we were in.”
GVSU squared off against Trevecca Nazarene the next morning for a spot in the regional championship game. In the first round, the Trojans outlasted top seed UIndy in a nine inning, 2-1 pitching duel led by senior ace Haley Fagan.
Fagan picked up right where she left off throwing a complete game, two-hitter in a 5-1 victory over the Lakers. GVSU had its chances to rattle Fagan, but left a total of eight runners on base.
The defeat moved the Lakers into the elimination bracket to face the other star senior pitcher in the regional – UIndy’s Morgan Foley, a top 10 finalist for the Schutt Sports/NFCA Division II National Player of the Year.
Surprisingly, an intense back-and-forth offensive showdown ensued.
GVSU’s upperclassmen came out swinging and weren’t afraid of Foley’s incredible numbers (40-3, 0.74 ERA) having beat Foley twice in four occasions over her career.
“Having prior experience against her helped, but it’s mostly just a mindset,” said junior Jenna Lenza. “You go in thinking you’ll get a hit off her and you will.”
Supernaw and junior Janae Langs provided clutch RBI hits in the first two innings, but UIndy responded each time to even the score. Tagged with both earned runs, sophomore pitcher Courtney Reinhold lasted 2.1 innings before Andrasik took over.
Tied at 2-2 through four frames, GVSU strung together five positive at-bats in fifth inning. Lenza broke the tie on a double off the wall, Supernaw knocked in her second RBI of the game on a single and Balbach reached on a liner the second basemen couldn’t handle to give the Lakers a 5-2 lead.
UIndy fought back with two runs in the top of the sixth, but the Greyhounds were denied the lead on a leaping catch at the wall by left fielder Kelsey Dominguez to bring back a three-run home run.
Andrasik pitched GVSU’s only 1-2-3 inning of the contest in the seventh to set up a rematch between the Lakers and Trevecca Nazarene.
“I’m ecstatic right now, it’s the only way to describe it,” Andrasik said. “Coming off a really good win, we need to ride that into tomorrow and pull out two more wins, which I think we will.”
There was no surprise that Fagan took the ball in both games for Trevecca Nazarene. Meanwhile, Callihan turned to GLIAC Freshman of the Year Allison Lipovsky even though she hadn’t pitched in a game since April 19 due to an injury.
Lipovsky struggled to throw strikes at times, but settled in to throw a complete game giving up two runs on three hits. Having seen Fagan the day before, the Lakers locked in at the plate for four runs on nine hits.
The Lakers biggest scare came in the bottom of sixth leading 2-1. The Trojans loaded the base with no outs, but Lipovsky worked out of it by only giving up the tying run on a sacrifice fly.
In the top of the seventh, GVSU caught a break with two batters reaching base on fielding errors. Supernaw made Trevecca Nazarene pay with a RBI double to left center and Balbach added an insurance run on a ground out.
“We were very opportunistic,” Callihan said. “We executed when we needed to and capitalized on the things that we could control.”
In the second game, Reinhold put aside her rough outing against UIndy the day before and pitched five solid innings, allowing just three hits and one earned run.
Sophomore Teagan Shomin’s broke the 0-0 stalemate in GVSU’s favor with her third home run of the season. Excitement was in the air as she fist pumped rounding first base.
“I didn’t really see it go over the fence,” Shomin said. “But, I heard everyone else and I knew.”
Trevecca Nazarene hit a solo home run of its own in the fifth inning to tie the score. But, as it would turn out, that would be the last hit for the Trojans on their season.
GVSU played small ball in the sixth to scrap out the winning run. Langs led off with a bunt single, stole second base, advanced to third on a fielder’s choice and successful crashed into the catcher covering home plate on a suicide squeeze to give the Lakers a hard fought, manufactured second run.
There was no late life for the Trevecca Nazarene like in the first game as Andrasik tossed two 1-2-3 innings in relief of Reinhold. A towering foul out to Supernaw in front of the Lakers' dugout sealed the victory, 2-1.
“I’m just so happy, there is nothing but happy thoughts going through my mind right now,” Shomin said. “There is a lot of love on this bus right now. It’s amazing and I’m so proud of us.”
GVSU is one of 16 Division II teams left with national championship aspirations. They will travel to Detroit to challenge GLIAC champions and third-seeded Wayne State in a best two-out-of-three Super Regional series on May 11 and 12. The winner advances to the College World Series in Denver.