The Massachusetts softball team opened its Atlantic 10 tournament run with a gutsy 2-1 victory over Saint Joseph’s on Friday, riding a stellar start from junior Meg Colleran into the next round.
Freshman Madison Gimpl’s two-out single in the second inning was all the offense UMass (27-22, 13-6 A-10) needed, as Colleran shut the door on St. Joe’s (24-27, 12-7 A-10) down the stretch to help the Minutewomen advance.
“I think it was a really gutsy performance by everybody,” said UMass coach Kristi Stefanoni. “We hit fine, well enough for us to win, but nothing was superb, nothing was great. But we gutted it out, and that’s what made the difference. We made plays when we needed to, we ran the bases hard when we needed to, and a lot of guts today helped us pull it out.”
Complete-game gems have become the norm for Colleran, and Friday was no different. Throwing all seven innings, Colleran allowed just one run while striking out seven to turn in one of her best outings of the season when it mattered most.
“I think Meg did really well today,” said Stefanoni, “I think she gutted it out too. There were a few innings there where she had some back-to-back walks, and she was able to come through with a strikeout and keep us in the game. She did a really, really nice job today, and she’s obviously a huge part of why we won.”
Colleran ran into some trouble in the middle innings, walking back-to-back hitters to open the third inning and allowing the lone Hawk run on a sacrifice fly.
“I felt pretty good,” Colleran said. “I think it was the third inning, when I walked the first two batters, I felt a little shaky then, but after that I think I settled in pretty well, and it was a better game for me, definitely.”
After one tough inning, Colleran pitched her way out of every jam she found herself in, keeping the St. Joe’s bats quiet and notching her 18th win of the season.
“Especially after those two walks I talked with [assistant coach Chelsea Plimpton] and [catcher Ashton Wince] and realized that my main problem was getting behind in counts,” said Colleran, “so my main focus was just getting ahead, trying to roll ground balls and get easy outs.”
The Minutewomen were rather quiet at the plate as well, only managing three hits and two unearned runs against Hawk ace Ashley Ventura. They made the most of their opportunities however, as Gimpl stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second with runners on second and third and laced a single into center field, scoring both runs and giving Colleran all the run support she would need.
It wasn’t the finest performance of UMass’ season, but it was enough.
“We’re going to have to play much better against anybody,” said Stefanoni, “whether it’s Saint Joseph’s again or Fordham or George Mason, we’re going to need to play better down the stretch if we want to reach the championship game.”
The win sets up a meeting with No. 1 seed Fordham, the tournament favorites and the four-time defending champions.
“Against a team like Fordham you do need to play much better than we did today,” Stefanoni said. “You always have the first-game jitters, the nervous energy in the tournament, and I’m hoping we got that out of the way and that’ll help us play a little better tomorrow against Fordham.”
The Minutewomen do have a little extra confidence heading into Saturday’s matchup, having taken two of three when the Rams came to Amherst in April.
“Knowing that they’ve had past success against that team is going to be really helpful for them to get through the game,” said Stefanoni, “but I think right now their confidence comes from each other, how they’re seeing each other play, we’re just taking it game-by-game, pitch-by-pitch, one day at a time.”
Colleran may very well get the ball against Fordham and she’d have plenty of reason to be confident if she does – the junior righty is 2-0 against the Rams this year, and outdueled A-10 co-pitcher of the year Lauren Quense the last time the two teams met.
“That definitely helps me out a lot,” Colleran said. “I know it’s a team that I can handle, and I know it’s a team that our offense can put up a lot of runs against, so I think it gives everyone a boost of confidence, everyone’s raring and ready to go.”
First pitch is scheduled for 1:00 p.m on Saturday in Fairfax, Virginia.
Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Amin_Touri.