GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In a regular season meeting with Davenport (Mich.) University, the University of Rio Grande saw the Panthers erase a two-run deficit with a sixth inning uprising en route to a come-from-behind win.
In Tuesday afternoon’s post-season rematch between the two nationally-ranked squads, the RedStorm survived a similar scenario to post their most important victory to date in what’s already been a record-setting season.
Head coach Chris Hammond’s team built a three-run fourth inning lead and then held on down the stretch for a 3-2 triumph in the winner’s backet final of the Grand Rapids Bracket of the NAIA Softball National Tournament Opening Round at the Farmer’s Insurance Athletic Complex.
Rio Grande, ranked No. 17 nationally and the tourney’s No. 2 seed, improved to 47-8 with the win and advanced to Wednesday’s championship game where they’ll face the Panthers again after their win over third-seeded Olivet Nazarene in Tuesday night’s loser’s bracket final.
The title game is scheduled for noon, with a second final – if needed – at 3 p.m.
The RedStorm need just one win on Wednesday to earn the program’s first-ever trip to the NAIA World Series, which is scheduled for May 28-June 2 in Clermont, Fla.
Eighth-ranked Davenport, the tourney’s host and top seed, finished the day at 45-8 after the early loss and the late victory.
“It was a seven-inning battle,” Hammond said. “They’re an exceptional team. It’s the second time we faced them and they’re not the kind of team that’s going to give up – they’ll fight you till the end. To beat a team of their caliber says something about our kids. I’m very proud of how our team played.”
Senior pitcher Jenna Jones (Lancaster, OH) survived a rough start and the Panthers’ late rally to earn her 13th win in 17 decisions. She walked five and hit a batter inside the first two innings, but escaped unscathed as DU left the bases loaded in both frames.
Rio grabbed a lead it would never relinquish in the top of the second when sophomore designated player MacKenzie Nichols (Columbus, OH) reached on a one-out walk and was replaced by sophomore pinch-runner Kelly Fuchs (Williamsport, OH), who stole second, moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by senior Cheyenne Hamaker (Hilliard, OH) and scored on a soft single to left by senior Kari Jenkins (Jackson, OH).
The RedStorm’s advantage grew to 3-0 in the fourth when Hamaker led off with a solo home run to left and, with two out, senior Alex Stevens (Oak Hill, OH) followed a double to right-center by freshman Michaela Criner (Lancaster, OH) with a run-scoring hit to right.
That’s how things stayed until the home sixth.
Lindsay Tasma drew a one-out walk and moved to second on a single by Briana Allen – Davenport’s first hit of the day – before scoring on a single by Haley Obetts to make it 3-1.
Obetts took second on the throw home and was promptly replaced by pinch-runner Selene Pauley. Lindsay Reed, who was pinch-running for Allen, came home and Pauley moved to third moments later when Jones was called for an illegal pitch, slicing the deficit to 3-2.
Jones retired Kennedy Crawford on a strikeout, but then walked Lauren French, who advanced to second on defensive indifference to put the would-be go-ahead run in scoring position.
Jones rebounded, though, by retiring pinch-hitter Kara Hutchison on a called third strike to end the inning.
Jones surrendered a two-out single to Alyssa Eastman in the home seventh, but induced Tasma into a game-ending grounder to shortstop.
“She’s a veteran who’s not just a thrower – she’s a pitcher,” said Hammond, in reference to Jones. “When she gets that ‘Eye of the Tiger’ look like she had today, you know you’re going to get everything she has to give. I thought she threw the ball really well.”
Jenkins finished 2-for-3 with a double and an RBI to spearhead Rio’s seven-hit attack. Four of the seven hits came from positions 7-9 in the RedStorm batting order.
“That’s the sign of having a true team. Somebody has to pick up the slack at some point,” Hammond said. “We’ve got confidence in all of our kids. The kids near the bottom of our order might not have the numbers that some of the other kids do, but they’re good players. Kari had some good at bats today. Chey – I told her right before her homer not to have that home run swing – and then she hit one. It’s just seeing the ball, getting good bat on it and then seeing what happens.”
Emily Maves (18-4) started and took the loss for Davenport, allowing six hits and the three runs over 3-2/3 innings.
“We have a tough group of kids. They realize that business isn’t over with yet. Tomorrow, the moment will be a little bit bigger,” said Hammond. “We just have to keep reminding ourselves about what got us to this point and keep trying to build on that – that’s the big thing. Beating somebody twice is a tough thing to do, but I’ve seen it done. Whomever we face is going to be playing for its life, so we know we’re going to get their best shot. We just have to be us. If we do that, I think we’ll be fine.”
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.