The Howard Payne Lady Jackets eclipsed the school record for single-season softball victories by dropping the Concordia Lady Tornados, 4-3, in Saturday’s regular season finale at Lady Jacket Park.
The Lady Jackets were earlier denied a 30-win campaign as Concordia took Game 1 of Saturday’s American Southwest Conference West Division doubleheader, 4-3. Howard Payne will get another crack at the 30-victory mark during next weekend’s ASC Softball Championship Tournament, though.
“It’s been a good run for us,” said Lady Jackets head coach Jose Mata. “We’ve got five seniors, great leadership on this team and we have a lot of experience pushing us. I think that’s been a big driving point for the team this year.
“The best part is we’re all on the same page and everybody is playing good. This is one of the best defensive teams I’ve been around. We make very few mistakes and that’s one of our biggest strengths going into the tournament.”
Howard Payne (29-9, 17-7), the ASC West runner-up, will face No. 6 UT-Tyler (31-7, 17-7), the third seed out of the loaded East Division, in Thursday’s 6 p.m. opening-round contest at Trinity View Park in Irving. The two teams were supposed to square off in the Millsaps College tournament March 13 in Jackson, Miss., but the tournament was cancelled.
“We tried to play UT-Tyler this year, but it got rained out and they kind of avoided us,” Mata said. “We’re going to be in the back of their minds and they know it’s not going to be a pushover for them this year. They sent us home last year, but we had a great game with them. It’s going to be a great challenge for us and we’re going to rise to the occasion.”
The top two seeds from the East are No. 1 East Texas Baptist (35-5, 21-3), which split two games against the Lady Jackets earlier this season, and No. 2 Louisiana College (32-6, 19-5). Hardin-Simmons (30-10, 12-3) and Schreiner (26-13, 15-9) are the first and third seeds from the West.
“This year I think the tournament can go any direction,” Mata said. “Anybody who goes in there and plays good can come out on top. There’s no dominant team, and that’s an advantage for all of us.”
Saturday’s games also marked the final at home for HPU seniors Jenna Middleton, Kristi Pinkerton, Lauren Bollich, Kate McLaughlin and Lauren Vesely, who will carry a 101-56 career record into their fourth consecutive ASC Softball Championship Tournament. The fivesome was also part of the 2007 team that owned the previous single-season record of 28 victories.
“I thought (former HPU head coach) Angela (Froboese) did a great job when she brought these kids in,” Mata said. “Each one had a good talent when (Froboese) brought them in, even though they may not be playing where they started out when they got here.
“Last year we found out Kate was a strong outfielder and a strong pitcher and she’s done an outstanding job. Jenna has been a great pitcher and a leader in the circle for us, and I think her performances give a lot of drive to our defense. Lauren Vesely’s done a great job at shortstop even though she came here as a catcher. Her calling was to be a great shortstop and she’s shown that leadership in our infield the last two years. Our outfield, when you look at Lauren Bollich, Kristi Pinkerton and Kate, they just do their jobs everyday. They bring their game with them, they play hard and it’s going to be hard to replace our outfield next year. They’ve all given us a strong foundation.”
In Saturday’s finale, the Lady Jackets squandered a three-run lead in the top of the seventh inning, but strung together four straight singles in the bottom of the inning to secure the victory.
Pinkerton’s RBI single off the glove of Concordia (20-20, 11-13) third baseman Jessica Rattan drove home McLaughlin with the winning run. After Mallory Wood lined out for the first out against Lady Tornado pitcher Miranda Ramirez, McLaughlin singled to right field, Ashley Silva slapped a single to left and Rebecca McDaniel drilled a single to center field. Pinkerton then ripped a 3-1 pitch down the line for the walk-off single.
Concordia rallied against HPU reliever Melissa Hall in the top of the seventh on an RBI single by Ashley Bolton and a two-RBI double by Carranda Goree. Until the seventh, McLaughlin and Hall had combined to toss a shutout and allow only six hits.
Howard Payne jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the third on a bases-loaded walk by Silva and a two-RBI double by McDaniel. Kellye Wheeler singled to start the inning, followed by one-out walks by Wood and Bollich, which loaded the bases. Wheeler was retired at the plate for the second out on a fielder’s choice by McLaughlin, but HPU did its damage with two outs in the inning.
The Lady Jackets finished with 10 hits in the nightcap, led by three from McDaniel and two each from Silva and Wheeler.
In Saturday’s opener, the Lady Jackets weren’t able to shrug off a slow start offensively as Howard Payne didn’t light up the scoreboard until the sixth inning.
Howard Payne shaved a four-run deficit to one in the sixth as McDaniel and Vesely started the rally by recording back-to-back singles to open the inning.
With one out, Wheeler singled through the right side to plate McDaniel with the first Lady Jacket run. Bollich followed with a two-out walk, then Brandie Rucker’s RBI infield single brought home Vesely to make the score 4-2.
With the bases loaded, McLaughlin drew a walk that forced home Wheeler with the third run, but the Lady Jackets left the sacks full as Silva lined out to second base for the final out.
The Lady Tornados did all their scoring in the first and fifth innings. Concordia grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top of the first as Goree’s two-out RBI single to left field scored Bolton, who walked with one out.
Concordia tacked on three runs in the fifth as Ramirez singled and Bolton and Lauren Vansickle reached on errors, which stretched the lead to 2-0. Rattan followed with an RBI sacrifice bunt, then Goree’s RBI infield single led to the Lady Tornados’ final run.
Lady Tornado pitcher Lyssa Yates surrendered nine hits and four walks, but surrendered just three runs. McDaniel led HPU with three hits, Pinkerton and Wheeler chipped in two each and Rucker and Vesely had one.
Middleton pitched all seven innings for the Lady Jackets, allowing four runs — one earned — on six hits with three strikeouts and two walks to notch the win.