MEDFORD, Mass. – It was worth the wait.
Sticking to the script which produced a conference championship and carried it to the brink of a regional title, the Eastern Connecticut State University softball team utilized dominant pitching, near-perfect defense and sufficient hitting once again to vanquish top-seeded host Tufts University, 5-1, to claim its 14th NCAA Division III regional championship Monday morning at Spicer Field.
One victory shy of annexing its first regional title in eight years, third-seeded Eastern (32-11) had to wait a day after rain wiped out Sunday's scheduled championship game to become the Medford, MA Regional titlist. Needing to beat the unbeaten Warriors twice to win the title, Tufts (32-10) commited two errors in the bottom of the first inning that led to three unearned Eastern runs, and the Warriors piled on two more in the third to build what proved to be an insurmountable 5-1 lead.
"Over the last two weeks, this team has really come together," praised 18th-year head coach Diana Pepin in an interview with E-TV Sports's Dom Conte after leading the Warriors to their third regional title in the past ten years. "They've played for each other. We've had growing pains (losing seasons) the last three seasons, but this team really wanted it."
With the game in her hands and a four-run lead, sophomore righty and tournament MVP Morgan Bolduk (Vernon) held firm, and the defense behind her made the final four innings all but academic as the Warriors won for the second time in the tournament over Tufts. Bolduk allowed only six baserunners while fanning two and walking one. She threw 65 of her 85 pitches for strikes. Tufts is ranked second in New England.
Bolduk (18-1) went the distance in all seven post-season tournament games – throwing back-to-back four-hitters against Tufts on either side of a rain date -- en route to a pair of tournament MVP awards, and Eastern outscored its opponents, 33-4 in those games. In Saturday's winners' bracket, Bolduk spun her fifth post-season shutout.
Sixteen teams remain in the tournament. Eastern moves into one of eight best-of-three Super Regional tournaments scheduled for this weekend. The Warriors will host Cambridge, MA Regional winner Rowan University (33-13), which survived a 14-inning, winner-take-all battle with top-seeded MIT Monday, 7-6. MIT had forced a decisive game with a 5-3 victory earlier in the day and erased a 6-0 deficit after 1 1/2 innings in the title game but could not score as the home team after the sixth inning.Trailing 7-6, MIT had the bases loaded and none out in the 14th but the tying run was cut down trying to score on a fly ball and an infield ground ball sent Rowan to the Super Regionals.
Game 1 is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday and Game 2 Saturday at noon. A third game, if needed, will be played Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
At right: Morgan Bolduk
Eastern and Cortland, NY Regional winner Williams College are the two lone remaining teams from New England. Eastern and Ewing, NJ Regional winner Randolph-Macon College are the lowest remaining ranked teams. Both were ranked ninth in their respective NCAA regional polls followiing conference play.
The eight Super Regional survivors compete in the NCAA Division III national tournament May 23-28 at the University of Texas at Tyler.
Eastern made only one error in post-season play, that coming with two out in the fourth inning Monday with Eastern in charge, 5-1. Bolduk made sure that the miscue was inconsequential, however, when she retired the side on a ground ball to third baseman Julia SanGiovanni (East Haven).
"This was amazing," offered Bolduk afterward. "I knew that my team had my back – our opponents had no shot of getting on base. The defense gets better every time we play."
The only thing that stood between Bolduc and her tenth shutout of the season was Christian Cain's leadoff home run in the second that had inches to spare as it cleared the left field fence.
Following the home run, Eastern squashed the Jumbos' fleeting hopes when it countered with two back-breaking runs the next inning. Junior shortstop Sara Pisanelli (Wallingford) opened the inning with a sharp single to center and scored all the way from first on a close play at the plate on freshman first baseman Brooke Matyasovsky's (Orange) double through the gap in right-center. With two out, junior centerfielder Sabrina LeMere (North Branford) also doubled to right-center to chase in pinch runner Katelyn Miller (Wallingford) and make it 5-1.
Pisanelli, Matyasovsky and LeMere represented Eastern on the all-tournament team.
After Bolduk allowed one hit in a scoreless top of the first inning, the Warriors pounced immediately in the bottom of the inning, scoring three unearned runs on three hits and two Tufts errors to grab a lead it would not relinquish.
Bolduk opened the inning with a single to center and a dropped throw on sophomore rightfielder Alexis Tyrrell's (Torrington) sacrifice bunt and a dropped fly ball in right on Matyasovsky's sacrif ice fly quickly made it 2-0. Senior second baseman Jackie Lewis (Mystic) made the Jumbos pay additionally for their mistakes with a two-out RBI single to center that pushed the lead to 3-0.
Lewis and LeMere each had two hits for Eastern.
In three regional tournament games, Bolduk was 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA and a shutout, 11 strikeouts against three walks and a .208 opposing team batting average. LeMere batted .556 (5-for-9) and Bolduk .500 (5-for10) with a home run and three RBI. Matyasovsky was 4-for-9 (.444) with three runs scored and three RBI.
In seven post-season games, Bolduk is 7-0 with a 0.61 ERA, five shutouts, 33 strikeouts and six walks in 46 innings and has given up 16 singles among her 21 hits. Opponents are batting .137 against her. LeMere tops the club with a .500 batting average with a .600 on-base percentage. Bolduk is batting .348 with two home runs and seven RBI and Matyasovsky is at .333 with a .714 slugging average (two doubles, two home runs) and a team-high eight RBI.