LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — University of Rio Grande centerfielder Morgan Santos has made her fair share of dazzling defensive plays this season.
None, though, were bigger than the one made by the Dayton, Ohio senior on Tuesday evening.
Santos’ diving grab of a two-out line drive off the bat of Georgia Gwinnett College’s Camryn Currie in the bottom of the seventh inning preserved a 6-5 win over the Grizzlies in the loser’s bracket final of the Lawrenceville Bracket in the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round at the Grizzly Softball Complex.
Rio Grande, which earlier in the day posted a 9-1 mercy rule-shortened victory over Georgetown (Ky.) College in another elimination contest, improved to 47-15 with the victory and equaled the single-season school record for wins.
The RedStorm, the No. 2 seed in the four-team, double-elimination bracket, will face third-seeded Milligan University in Wednesday’s championship first final at noon.
A second final, if needed, would take place at 2:30 p.m.
The Buffaloes, who punched their ticket to the title game earlier in the day with a win over Georgia Gwinnett in winner’s bracket final, need just one win to earn a berth to the NAIA World Series beginning May 27 in Columbus, Ga.
Rio Grande needs to beat Milligan twice to advance to the World Series.
Georgia Gwinnett, which was ranked eighth nationally and was the bracket’s top seed, finished its season at 33-13.
The Grizzlies rallied from a 1-0 fourth inning deficit to take a 2-1 lead and nearly came back again after trailing 6-2 going into the bottom of the seventh.
Rio senior starter Raelynn Hastings (Commercial Point, OH) retired each of the first two batters routinely before Kloey Goins homered to make it 6-3.
Piper Wagner followed with a single to center, Sydney Pelaez doubled to deep right and both scored on Holly Janco’s single up the middle to pull the Grizzlies within 6-5.
Currie followed Janco to the plate and promptly lined Hastings’ first pitch toward left-center field, but Santos saved the game — and, perhaps for the time being, the RedStorm’s season — with a diving, juggling catch for the game’s final out.
Rio Grande took a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning when junior Taylor Webb (Willow Wood, OH) doubled with one out and scored on a throwing error while advancing to third on a groundout by junior Kenzie Cremeens (Ironton, OH).
Georgia Gwinnett took the lead in the fifth inning when a two-out error paved the way for a two-run single by Pelaez three batters later, but the RedStorm regained a lead they would never relinquish by rallying for five runs — all after two were out — in the sixth.
Freshman Caitlyn Brisker (Oak Hill, OH) led off with a walk and was bunted to second. One out later, Cremeens drew a walk to set the stage for a game-tying single to right-center by senior Kayla Slutz (Navarre, OH).
Sophomore Christen Risner (Wheelersburg, OH) came on to run for Slutz before Santos drew a walk to load the bases. Junior Zoe Doll (Minford, OH) then doubled just inside the third base bag to make it 4-2 and freshman Lexi Carnahan (Felicity, OH) followed with a two-run double of her own to give Rio what proved to be much needed insurance.
Webb finished 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles in the winning effort, while Doll had two hits.
Hastings improved to 21-4 for the season in a gutty complete game effort, allowing 10 hits and three earned runs with two walks and three strikeouts.
Pelaez went 3-for-3 with two doubles in the loss for the Grizzlies, while Goins and Janco both had two hits and Lea McFadden added a double.
Wagner started and took the loss for GGC, which had beaten Rio in 11 of their previous 13 meetings — three of which came in early March. She allowed five hits and six runs — five earned — over 5-2/3 innings.
Rio Grande opened the day by rallying for its run-rule win over Georgetown.
The fourth-seeded Tigers (27-22) pushed across a fourth inning run to break a scoreless tie, but the RedStorm countered with five runs in the bottom of the frame and then scored four times in the home half of the sixth to get the victory.
Brisker highlighted the five-run fifth with a two-out, two-run triple, while Cremeens wrapped up the win with a bases-clearing three-run double in the sixth.
Webb finished 3-for-4 with a double and a run batted in for Rio Grande, while Brisker and Cremeens both had two hits apiece.
Hastings scattered nine hits — all singles — over six innings to pick up the win. She walked none and fanned two batters.
Sarah Claxon started and took the loss for Georgetown, allowing seven hits and five runs — only one of which was earned — over 3-2/3 innings.
Madie Sims had two hits and drove in the Tigers’ lone run, while Kylee West finished 2-for-2 in the loss.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.