BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — After rolling to a River States Conference regular season and tournament championship, the University of Rio Grande had no reason to believe its potent offensive attack would do its best impression of Jimmy Hoffa and disappear without a trace.
Unfortunately, on the biggest stage of 2018 campaign, that’s exactly the fate that the RedStorm found themselves subjected to.
Head coach Chris Hammond’s club dropped a 1-0 extra-inning decision to Faulkner University in its opening game of the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round’s Bowling Green No. 2 Bracket, before falling 7-0 to Madonna University in an elimination game on Monday afternoon at sauna-like Michael O. Buchanan Park.
Rio Grande, which was ranked 24th nationally and seeded third in the four-team bracket, finished its season at 35-13.
The losses marked the first time that the RedStorm was shutout in consecutive games since an 8-0 loss at Urbana University and a 7-0 setback at West Virginia Tech on April 15 and April 19, respectively, six years ago.
Rio Grande, which was making its fourth straight national tourney appearance and its fifth overall, managed just three hits in its game one loss to second-seeded and 17th-ranked Faulkner.
Sophomore Michaela Criner (Bremen, OH) led off the game with a single and eventually advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and a groundout, but was left stranded.
Freshman Mary Pica (Minford, OH) snapped a streak of 12 straight batters retired by Faulkner starter Caitlin Perry dating back to the leadoff hit by Criner when she led off the fifth with an infield single. A sacrifice bunt moved Pica into scoring position, but the next two batters were retired routinely to end the scoring threat.
Those were the only RedStorm runners to advance beyond first base in the contest — Rio’s first extra inning game of the season.
The Eagles had just five hits of their own against Rio junior starter Kelsey Conkey (Minford, OH), but still left runners in scoring position in the first, second and fourth innings.
Faulkner’s breakthrough came in the home half of the eighth inning.
Pinch-hitter Tara Ammons led off with a single, Shelby Brown was hit by a pitch and a sacrifice bunt moved both runners into scoring position. Abby Barron was then intentionally walked to set up a force play at any base, but Conkey then walked Kendall Bennett to force home pinch-runner Shelbi Burbage with the game-winning run.
Conkey, who suffered just her third loss in 20 decisions, walked four and struck out five in a complete game effort.
Perry improved to 20-5 with the win, allowing just the three hits and striking out five.
In the elimination game against fourth-seeded Madonna, the Eagles scored all of their runs with two outs and used a four-run third inning to blow things open.
Senior Mallory Powell (Flatwoods, KY) started and took the loss for Rio. The right-hander allowed four hits, four walks and five runs — all earned — over just 2-2/3 innings.
Halee Warren came up a home run shy of the cycle for the Crusaders, finishing with a run-scoring single in the first, an RBI triple in the third and run-scoring double in the fourth inning.
Makayla Bassage added a two-run single in the four-run third for MU, while Kelsie Powell drove in a pair of runs.
Alyssa Fessenden allowed six hits and four walks, while striking out one in a complete game effort for her fifth win in six decisions.
Criner accounted for half of Rio’s hit total by going 3-for-4, while Conkey and junior Carly Skeese (Newark, OH) both had a double in a losing cause.
Monday’s games marked the final contests in a Rio uniform for Powell, senior Hannah Hawley (Thurman, OH) and the junior duo of Kelly Fuchs (Williamsport, OH) and Kacee Jenkins (Jackson, OH).
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.