UMass softball advances to Atlantic 10 championship

By Stephen Hewitt

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

On a day when seniors were honored as part of undergraduate commencement ceremonies at the University of Massachusetts, it was a sophomore who came up with a big hit for the Massachusetts softball team.

With runners on first and second, two outs down to her last strike of the sixth inning of Friday’s Atlantic 10 semifinal game against second-seeded Fordham, first baseman Tiffany Meeks made the most of her opportunity.

The pitch was outside, but Meeks connected and roped a single to center, scoring Kyllie Magill from second. After an errant throw by the Rams centerfielder landed in the backstop and allowed Katie Bettencourt to come around to score from first, Meeks made her way to third, as the top-seeded Minutewomen finally broke the scoring and took a 2-0 lead.

Meeks, who hit a team-low .163 for the season and hadn’t recorded a hit in the A-10 tournament prior to her game-winning bat, made the right adjustments to finally break through.

“I really just wanted to put the ball in play,” Meeks said. “I needed to make something happen for my team and score some runs and we did.”

The hit was all the Minutewomen (36-11, 19-0 A-10) needed as ace pitcher Sara Plourde kept Fordham (32-25, 14-6 A-10) off the scoreboard in the seventh, clinching a 2-0 victory and berth in Saturday’s championship game at the Billiken Sports Center in St. Louis, Mo.

As expected, Friday’s game proved to be a pitching duel between Plourde and Jen Mineau. One week removed from a 17-inning, five-hour long marathon game in which both aces went the distance, both pitchers were back and in top form.

Plourde and Mineau – who rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation in strikeouts, respectively – only struck out nine batters combined, but were still equally hard to figure out. Plourde finished allowing only two hits and one walk while striking out four. She didn’t face any major jams as she picked up her 35th victory of the season and improved to 20-0 against conference opponents.

“Sara Plourde is amazing,” Meeks said. “She is so great and she is so calm out there. We could have the bases loaded with no outs and she’s like ‘It’s OK guys, I got it,’ and we’re right there behind her and supporting her all the way.”

UMass had a golden opportunity to break the scoring and open the floodgates in the second. But with the bases loaded and one out, Mineau was able to pitch out of her jam. Teea Rogers struck out swinging and Christine Della Vecchia grounded out as the Minutewomen came away empty-handed.

Mineau finished with five strikeouts, allowing two runs on four hits as her record dropped to 25-14.

UMass now awaits the winner of Friday night’s game between the Rams and either George Washington or Saint Joseph’s, all teams that are still alive by virtue of the double elimination structure of the A-10 tournament. First pitch of the championship game is set for 2 p.m.
UMass tops GW in quarters

On Thursday afternoon, UMass came within two wins of claiming its 23rd A-10 tournament championship after defeating fourth-seeded George Washington, 5-2, in the quarterfinals.

When the Colonials (23-29, 11-9 A-10) and Minutewomen first met in a doubleheader on April 15, Plourde was literally unhittable, posting two no-hitters against GW in a pair of Minutewomen victories.

Thursday’s win wasn’t as easy, but Plourde put together yet another vintage performance, yielding just two hits and striking out 18 while also helping out her own cause on offense and going 2-for-2 with a pair of RBIs.

Plourde – who hit a team-leading 11 home runs during the regular season – said she loves being able to extend her game past the pitching circle and succeed in the batter’s box.

“I’ve wanted to hit for all four years,” Plourde said, “but things just didn’t happen because of injuries and stuff, so it keeps me alive in the game. I love it. I love the whole game, so why not pitch and hit?”

After hitting an RBI single to open the scoring in the bottom of the first, it looked it would be smooth sailing for Plourde in the circle as well. But after striking out the first two batters in the third, she hit a bump in the road. She issued a walk to Julie Orlandi and then Victoria Valos took her deep to left field to give the Colonials a 2-1 advantage.

“I think I like to make things interesting,” Plourde said. “I don’t really know what happened. My mechanics kind of just fell apart, but coming back I knew I had to get my crap together, so I pulled it back together and went for it.”

And pulling it back together she did, although it didn’t come simply. She surrendered a walk to the next batter, Autumn Taylor, hit Tara Fogarty and then walked Sandi Moynihan to load the bases and bring up pinch-hitter Chelsea Lenhart. Fourteen pitches and eight foul balls later, however, Plourde finally struck her out looking to end the inning and biggest threat of the ballgame.

UMass immediately erased its deficit in the bottom half of the inning. Magill led off and reached first on a fielding error, then Lindsey Webster laid down a successful sacrifice bunt to put her in scoring position. That brought up none other than Plourde, who lined a double to center that scored Magill and tied the game.

The Minutewomen reclaimed the lead in the fourth when, after back-to-back singles from Della Vecchia and Cyndil Matthew, Quianna Diaz-Patterson reached on a throwing error, which helped Della Vecchia come around to score. Magill followed her with a single to right-center which scored Matthew to increase the lead to 4-2.

From there, it was all Plourde. She allowed only two base runners in the final three innings and even struck out the side in the sixth. UMass tacked on another run in the fifth when Della Vecchia roped a double to center to score Plourde after she reached getting hit by a pitch.

Plourde named finalist

The Amateur Softball Association announced its 11 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award on Wednesday, and Plourde made the cut.

The list includes five seniors, three juniors, two sophomores and a freshman. California and Oklahoma are well represented on the list, boasting two finalists each.

The finalists will be trimmed to three on May 23 and the winner will be announced on May 29 at the start of the NCAA Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. No UMass player has ever won the award.

UMass sweeps A-10 awards

On Tuesday, the A-10 announced its regular-season awards, and there were no shortage of Minutewomen honored. Plourde became the first player in A-10 history to earn Player and Pitcher of the Year honors, while Diaz-Patterson earned the league’s Rookie of the Year and UMass coach Elaine Sortino won the conference’s Coach of the Year.

Plourde earned her third Pitcher of the Year award, which also marks the seventh consecutive year that a Minutewoman has won it. Former pitcher Brandice Balschmiter won it four times in a row from 2006-2009.

The accolades and league and nation-leading numbers for Plourde seem to be never-ending. The ace – who currently stands at 35-9 with a 1.73 ERA – leads the country in strikeouts, wins, strikeouts per seven innings, fewest hits allowed per seven innings and opponents’ batting average (.113).

She’s thrown six no-hitters this season – including three against A-10 opponents and a perfect game versus St. Bonaventure – as well as a conference-leading 41 complete games and 13 shutouts. In addition, she hit 10 home runs and 25 RBIs in conference play, both good to lead the league.

Diaz-Patterson was nothing short of exceptional in her first year as a Minutewoman. The Amherst native not only picked up Rookie of the Year honors, but was also named to the All-Rookie team and second-team all-conference. She hit .349 on the season – good for second on the team – and hit a blistering .435 during A-10 play to lead the team. For the season, she drove in a team-leading 40 runs and had 14 multi-hit games.

Sortino earned the Coach of the Year award for the 11th time during her illustrious 33-year career at the helm of the Minutewomen. This season, UMass won its 23rd regular-season championship, earning it the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the A-10 tournament.

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