A-10 champion Minutewomen fall short in NCAA Regional

By Nick Canelas

Maria Uminski/Collegian

All season long, the Massachusetts softball team relied on the dominance of pitcher Sara Plourde to help carry the team to its 23rd Atlantic 10 title, oftentimes needing near-perfect performances in order to come away with close wins.

In a weekend when the offense failed to push runs across the plate, near-perfect was not enough as one pitch left over the plate by Plourde followed by a wild pitch was all it took for the Minutewomen’s (38-13) season to come to an end.

“Sara pitched an outstanding game,” said UMass coach Elaine Sortino. “Quite frankly she threw one pitch over the plate and that was the one that got drilled to left-center [in the ninth]. Other than that she did a great job.”

UMass only lasted two games in the NCAA Regional before being eliminated on Saturday night following a 1-0 loss to Illinois State in nine innings at University Field in Columbia, Mo.

The Redbirds’ (36-11) offense was anemic through eight innings as Plourde dominated with 14 strikeouts – raising her career total to 1,662, good for eighth-most in NCAA history – on just one hit, but had nothing to show for it as the Minutewomen stranded nine baserunners despite collecting eight hits off pitcher Jordan Birch.

It appeared as if UMass had the better team in this affair despite the scoreless tie through the first eight innings.

Then, the ninth inning happened.

After Lindsey Greene reached on a walk with one out, Jahvon Hamilton ripped a double to left-center to put runners at second and third.

With two strikes on leftfielder Lauren Keller, Plourde fired a riseball that got away from her for a wild pitch that was enough to score Greene from third and end the game abruptly.

“That was probably my worst pitch of the night,” said Plourde. “[It was] very bad timing and a very costly pitch.

“It literally just got away from me.”

It was a situation that Plourde and the entire team had faced countless times throughout the season. This time, however, the ending was much more unexpected.

“We had to do what we needed to do with a runner on third and just one out,” said Sortino. “Who would’ve ever thought it would come down to that?

“I feel sorry that [Plourde’s] career had to end that way.”

UMass had its share of chances offensively, getting two-hit performances from outfielders Katie Bettencourt and Christine Della Vecchia, but could not get the timely hits necessary to score the runners.

The Minutewomen had their best opportunity in the top of the third when Cyndil Matthew and Della Vecchia each singled to put runners on first and second with no outs. From there, Birch — who struck out seven batters while not allowing a walk in nine innings pitched — went to work, forcing Magill to fly out to left, Plourde to foul out and Webster to fly out to right to end the threat and escape the inning with no damage done.

“[Eight hits] is a lot of hits to not have a run on the board,” said Sortino. “I felt like when the situation came, particularly the two-out situations with runners in scoring position, we were just a little anxious and reaching for the ball.”

UMass drops opener

It was another case of offensive struggles Friday afternoon when UMass met DePaul in the NCAA Regional opening round game.

Unfortunately for the Minutewomen, it didn’t end in their favor.

After yet another near-flawless outing from Plourde, the Blue Demons (36-20) finally broke through in the bottom of the sixth with three runs on three hits en route to their 3-0 victory.

The loss snapped UMass’ 22-game winning streak, which started on April 4.

“I thought Sara pitched an exceptional game,” Sortino said. “I thought things got a little too fast, too quick. I think we could have slowed the game down a little bit ourselves, and it got away from us.”

Plourde finished with seven strikeouts and two walks. She was perfect through four innings and gave up a fifth-inning walk before DePaul opened the floodgates in the sixth.

She surrendered a leadoff single, then a walk and followed that with a wild pitch that put both runners in scoring position. Lynsey Ciezki hit an RBI single, beginning three straight at-bats for the Blue Demons in which they scored a run, suddenly putting them up 3-0 heading into the seventh.

Kyllie Magill and Lindsey Webster went down to start the inning, then Plourde was hit by a pitch, but Katie Bettencourt couldn’t take advantage of it as she flied out to right to end the game.

UMass finished with only two hits and failed to put any runners across the plate to give its star pitcher support.

“The one thing that I think we needed to do better was our adjustments at the plate,” Sortino said. “We just weren’t adjusting. Our swings were a little too big and we needed to do a better job of taking the ball the other way.”

The Minutewomen immediately put a threat into DePaul in the first inning, when Matthew led off the game with a single. She then stole second, which set the UMass single-season record at 35 stolen bases. But she was left stranded as Quianna Diaz-Patterson and Magill struck out swinging, and Webster grounded out to the pitcher.

Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Canelas. Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt.