MANSFIELD, Conn. -- Sophomore right-handed pitcher Morgan Bolduk (Vernon) recorded her ninth straight complete-game post-season win and drove in the tying and go-ahead runs with a two-out single in the bottom of the sixth inning to lift the Eastern Connecticut State University softball team to a 3-2 victory over Rowan University and the championship of the NCAA Division III Willimantic, Conn. Super Regional Tournament Saturday afternoon at Clyde Washburne Field.
By sweeping No. 23-ranked Rowan (33-15), unranked Eastern (34-11) advances to the program's 14th NCAA Division III national tournament – third in the last ten years under 18th-year head coach Diana Pepin -- which gets underway Thursday at Tyler, TX. Rowan had captured its second Super Regional title in three seasons a year ago and had survived a 14-inning marathon in the finals of last weekend's Cambridge, Mass. Regional Tournament.
The eighth-seeded Warriors face St. Paul, Minn. Super Regional host University of St. Thomas (43-5), seeded first, in the first game at noon ET. St. Thomas has won ten straight, hosting and sweeping through regional and Super Regional play.
"This team is all about grit," told 18th-year head coach Diana Pepin to Dom Conte of E-TV Sports afterwards."I knew if I just left them alone they were going to come out ready to play. I know they feed off my energy, so I was just trying to let them do their thing, and they did it and they wanted it and I think that we stayed composed in tight situations and we got a couple calls and that was huge. Julia (SanGiovanni) (East Haven) made an awesome play at third (in the sixth inning) and (second baseman) Jackie Lewis (Mystic) made a dive to get a ball (in the seventh inning)... you know, everybody was just giving everything they had and I'm really proud of them."
Eastern was the first program to win back-to-back national titles (1985-86), and St. Thomas was the second (2004-05). The teams have met six times, Eastern winning four -- all at neutral sites. The Warriors captured the last meeting, 6-4, in 2011.
Bolduk (20-1), who had struck out five times and walked twice in seven plate appearances in the tournament, laced the first pitch from Rowan reliever Jesse DeDomenico with two out and bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth into left field to chase home senior pinch runner Kayla Santos (Peabody, MA) from third with the tying run and freshman leftfielder Laura Zenk (Hermon, ME) from second with what proved to be the winning run.
Eastern had never trailed in the tournament's two games until Rowan freshman leftfielder Morgan Zane drove a 2-1 pitch from Bolduk on a line over the left field fence with one out in the top of the sixth for her first NCAA post-season home run to give the Profs a 2-1 lead.
In the bottom of the inning, Eastern loaded the bases with two out against starter and loser Lauren Shannon with two walks and a hit-by-pitch. Bolduk, who struck out three times against DeDomenico Friday in Eastern's 2-1 first-game win, drove the first pitch thrown by the relief pitcher into left field for two RBI. Santos was running for pinch hitter Kamdynn Moroney (Sandy Hook), who had walked with one out, and Zenk had reached on a fielder's choice for the second out of the inning.
At right: When it was all said and done, Morgan Bolduk stepped forward as both the tournament's Most Outstanding Pitcher and Most Outstanding Player award recipient. (Photo by Erin Winsor)
"I was excited coming into the game -- we had one win up on them, so we had the advantage," said Bolduk to Dom Conte afterwards. Referencing her game-winning hit, said Bolduk, "I had struck out the two at-bats before, so I said that I better go up there swinging because I have nothing to lose at this point. (DeDomenico) had pitched (Friday) so I knew she was going to throw a first-pitch strike, so I swing at it and dropped it in. I saw the crowd, everyone was jumping around and screaming. Winning," she added, "was an amazing feeling."
In addition to driving in two runs, Bolduk scored the other Eastern run in the bottom of the first inning when she walked to open the inning, moved to second on a passed ball, to third on sophomore rightfielder Alexis Tyrrell's (Torrington) sacrifice bunt and beat the throw home on junior shortstop Sara Pisanelli's (Wallingford) infield ground ball.
The team's ability to overcome adversity late in the game following Zane's go-ahead home run did not surprise Pepin. "These kids love each other -- they really do -- and I think that they wanted to stay together as long as possible. Over the past three years, the veterans have really taken the lead and pushed themselves and pushed each other, and I think that's what it's about."
Eastern had several chances to pad its 1-0 lead but stranded six – three in scoring position – and Zane made them pay in the top of the sixth.
In that Rowan sixth inning, SanGiovanni and first baseman Brooke Matyasovsky (Orange) -- both freshmen -- teammed up to retire senior third baseman Cassandra Gerard for the first out when the former dove to her left to smother a hard-hit ball, and the latter reached to her right to scoop the low throw. All-Region sophomore DP Kelly Duffy followed by singling sharply to center with one out before Zane connected to give the Profs their only lead of the tournament.
Two of the key moments in a game featuring many of them, came with Eastern nursing its 1-0 lead in the fourth and fifth innings. With one out and the tying run on first base in the fourth, Bolduk fielded a sharp one-hopper off the bat of Sonia Sharma. She turned immediately and fired a strike to Pisanelli at second base to start a 1-6-3 inning-ending double play -- which extended to 23 a team record for double plays in a season.
With one out and one on the fifth, Matyasovsky caught -- and then dropped -- a throw from SanGiovanni on a sacrifice bunt. Following a lengthy discussion, it was ruled that Matyasovsky had possession of the ball long enough for the batter-runner to be ruled out. With one out and pinch runner Shea Branda on second, Bolduk retired top hitter Carly Anderson on a pop fly to Matyasovsky on a 1-2 pitch, and after falling behind 2-1 to DeDomenico, got an inning-ending ground ball to Lewis at second.
With Eastern three outs from winning its first Super Regional title in its first appearance (the format was instituted in 2014), Anderson – the team's top hitter for average -- kept Rowan's hopes alive by doubling to the right field fence with two out in the bottom of the seventh, but Bolduk ended the game when DeDomenico flew out to junior Sabrina LeMere (North Branford) in shallow center on an 0-1 pitch.
Bolduk gave up six hits while fanning three and walking two. Shannon fanned eight and allowed only three hits but walked five and was charged with all three runs (two of them earned).
Bolduk was named both the tournament's Most Outstanding Pitcher and Most Outstanding Player. Offensively, she reached three times in two games, scored two runs, drove in two runs and handled six chances in the field without an error.
On the mound, Bolduk was 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA, with six strikeouts and three walks in 14 innings. In five NCAA games which include a three-game sweep in last weekend's Medford, MA Regional Tournament, Bolduk is 5-0 with a 1.20 ERA in 35 innings, with 17 strikeouts and six walks.
In post-season play which includes four Little East Conference games, Bolduk is 9-0 with five shutouts, a 0.70 ERA in 60 innings, 39 strikeouts and nine walks.
Against Rowan, Tyrrell reached safely four times with two hits and two walk.
Having played on four national tournament qualifying teams and a national champion in the late 1980s and early '90s, Pepin knows what it takes to win a national title. "We just need to remember that we earned a spot to get there. We played hard and we played our game, and (the players) can do whatever they want, whatever they set their minds to. It's going to be exciting, it's going to be great, so I'm very proud of them and I want them to experience it the way I experienced it. It would be nice," she noted, "to go out as champions."