LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — With his team staring elimination — and then end of its season — directly in the face, University of Rio Grande head softball coach Chris Hammond couldn’t have asked for a pair of better pitching performances than the ones his team received from the duo of Kelsey Conkey and Raelynn Hastings.
Conkey tossed a one-hit shutout against 12th-ranked Truett-McConnell (Ga.) University, while Hastings blanked Louisiana State University-Alexandria on two hits to send the RedStorm into the championship round of the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round’s Lawrenceville Bracket.
Tuesday’s 1-0 win over second-seeded Truett-McConnell at the Grizzly Softball Complex and subsequent 3-0 triumph over LSU-Alexandria, the bracket’s No. 3 seed, put Rio Grande (36-15) opposite of top-seeded – and eighth-ranked – Georgia Gwinnett College (41-14) in Wednesday’s title matchup.
The fourth-seeded RedStorm, who fell to the Grizzlies in Monday’s opening round, would need a pair of wins over the tourney host to earn the program’s first-ever trip to the NAIA World Series.
Georgia Gwinnett, which held off LSU-Alexandria, 8-6, in Tuesday’s winner bracket final, needs just one win to secure its second straight Series berth.
Wednesday’s championship first final is scheduled for a noon start. A second final, if necessary, will begin 40 minutes after the conclusion of the opening contest.
In Tuesday’s opener against Truett-McConnell, Conkey came within three outs of tossing a no-hitter. A clean, bloop single to right-center off the bat of Liz Bunton to begin the seventh inning ended her bid for history.
Conkey, a senior right-hander from Minford, Ohio, walked two and hit one batter while striking out three en route to her sixth shutout of the season.
Rio Grande scored the game’s lone run in the third inning when junior Michaela Criner (Bremen, OH) reached on a one-out single, moved to second on a groundout and rode home on an opposite field single to left by freshman Taylor Webb (Willow Wood, OH).
Criner finished with three of the RedStorm’s seven hits in the win.
Karley Hobbs (29-4) started and took the loss for Truett-McConnell, which finished its season at 42-11.
Hobbs allowed seven hits and two walks in a complete game effort. She was the losing pitcher in each of the Bears’ two outings in the tourney – both 1-0 losses.
Hastings, a sophomore right-hander from Commercial Point, Ohio, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against LSU-Alexandria.
Despite the lack of a hit, the Generals (34-16) failed to cash in on scoring opportunities by stranding runners in scoring position in both the second and third innings.
Rio also left runners in scoring position in the first and third innings before finally getting on the scoreboard in the fifth inning.
Sophomore Cammy Hesson (Point Pleasant, WV) led off with a walk and scored on a triple to left-center by Criner, who became the first player in the country to reach double-figures in all three extra-base hit categories.
LSU-A starter Abbey McMillan was lifted in favor of Ryleigh Rutherford, who coaxed junior Lexi Philen (Tallmadge, OH) into a routine grounder to second base against a drawn-in infield, but the ball was booted for an error allowing Criner to score.
Webb then bunter Philen into scoring position and Conkey followed with an RBI single to center.
Bailey McCleary led off the sixth with a clean single to left to end Hastings’ no-hit bid, but was forced at second on a fielder’s choice grounder to short by Alexis Hagan. A throwing error on the same play and a subsequent flyout allowed Hagan to reach third, but the scoring threat died when Emily Daniel grounded out to shortstop.
The Generals’ final hit came on a one-out single by Haylee Tidwell in the seventh, but Hastings retired the next two batters on a groundout and a liner to a leaping Philen at second base to close things out.
Hastings walked just one and struck out only one in tossing her fourth shutout of the year.
Philen added a triple in the winning effort.
McMillian suffered the loss for LSU-A, allowing four hits, three walks and two runs over four-plus innings.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.