GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Kelsey Conkey tossed a two-hit shutout and hit a home run to lead the University of Rio Grande in a 6-0 win over Olivet Nazarene (IL) University in the Grand Rapids Bracket of the NAIA Softball National Tournament Opening Round, Monday afternoon, at Farmer’s Insurance Athletic Complex.
Rio Grande, ranked No. 17 nationally and seeded second in the four-team bracket, improved to 46-8 with the victory and will face either top-seeded and eighth-ranked Davenport University or Hastings (Neb.) College in Tuesday’s winner’s bracket final in the double-elimination tourney.
Olivet Nazarene, the No. 3 seed in the tourney, slipped to 31-13 with the loss and will play the Davenport-Hastings loser in a 3 p.m. elimination contest on Tuesday.
“When you come into a four-team, double-elimination tournament, I think that’s very important that you win the first game,” said Rio Grande head coach Chris Hammond. “It’s all about getting off to a good start. We didn’t do that last year, but we were able to today. It’s a good spot to be in.”
Conkey, a sophomore from Minford, Ohio, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before ONU’s Emily Carstens tripled along the right field line with one out. Conkey retired each of the next two batters on routine groundouts to end the threat.
The Tigers’ other hit was a one-out double by Miranda Southall in the seventh inning but, again, Conkey retired each of the next two batters to secure her 10th shutout of the year.
Conkey also plated what proved to be the only run she would need with a leadoff home run in the home half of the second inning – tying sophomore Carly Skeese (Newark, OH) for the team lead with her 13th long ball of the season.
“It was a changeup and, actually, was a pretty good pitch,” said Hammond. “She was able to hold back and then went down and got good bat on it. There wasn’t much doubt that it was gone.”
Rio Grande added three more runs in the inning.
Sophomore MacKenzie Nichols (Columbus, OH) followed Conkey’s home run with a walk and was replaced by senior pinch-runner Jenna Jones (Lancaster, OH). One out later, senior Kari Jenkins (Jackson, OH) walked, a passed ball sent Jones to third and junior Gabby Gregg (Ashville, OH) had a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0.
Freshman Michaela Criner (Lancaster, OH) kept the inning going with a single, setting the stage for a two-run triple to right by senior Alex Stevens (Oak Hill, OH) which extended the cushion to 4-0.
That’s how things stayed until the RedStorm added on a pair of insurance markers in the sixth inning thanks to a two-out, bases loaded single by Nichols and a subsequent walk to senior Cheyenne Hamaker (Hillard, OH).
Rio had plenty of opportunities before adding on the late runs, stranding single runners in each of the first three innings, leaving the bases loaded in the fourth and stranding a pair in the fifth.
Criner finished with three of the RedStorm’s 12 hits, while Skeese, Conkey and Nichols all had two hits each.
Carstens suffered her sixth loss in 25 decisions, allowing all 12 hits and six runs over 5-2/3 innings.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.