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Long day for Lady Eagles ends with NCCAA softball runner-up finish

The OC Lady Eagles pose with the runner-up trophy after falling to Shorter (Ga.) on Saturday.
The OC Lady Eagles pose with the runner-up trophy after falling to Shorter (Ga.) on Saturday.

By Murray Evans
TROUTVILLE, Va. (May 17, 2014) – Given the decision to fold or fight, Oklahoma Christian chose the latter on Saturday, meaning the Lady Eagles left the National Christian College Athletic Association Softball Championship with their heads held high.

Unfortunately, they didn’t also leave with a hoped-for national title. At the end of a marathon day, second-seeded OC rallied to force extra innings against Shorter (Ga.) but wasn’t able to take the lead, eventually falling to the top-seeded Hawks 2-1 in nine innings in the championship round of the tournament at the Botetourt Sports Complex’s Ken Myers Field.

OC (42-16) thus ended as the NCCAA runner-up, posting the best national finish in the program’s history and matching the 2012 golf team for the highest national finish by any of the university’s women’s sports squads. The Lady Eagles tied the program record for wins in a season (set in 1996 and matched in 1998) and set a slew of individual marks during a memorable campaign.

“We’re not used to playing three games in a day, but the kids kept battling all day long,” OC coach Tom Heath said. “I’m very proud of them. That last game, after getting beat by Shorter the first time, we took them to extra innings and just battled like crazy. It was a great game. Shorter has a great team. We just ran into a team that’s pretty tough.

“We had six seniors, six freshmen and six in between. To bring that team together, to have that kind of year, it took some work, and they did. They accepted their roles very well. They performed their roles to the best of their ability and they all like each other. They’re all friends. This is a fun team to coach.”

The Lady Eagles ended up having to play three games on Saturday. They fell 10-0 to Shorter in the winners’ bracket final, then beat Union (Tenn.) 10-5 in the losers’ bracket final to earn a rematch with Shorter. Had OC won the last game, the Lady Eagles and Shorter (42-10) would have played a winner-take-all contest.

Entering the championship round, Shorter had rolled through the tournament, with the Hawks’ pitchers allowing only one hit in three wins – throwing two no-hitters in the process, one against OC. Shorter had outscored opponents 32-0 during that stretch.

But OC freshman Shea Coats (24-4) – who pitched 16 1/3 innings Saturday – mostly shut down the Hawks after the first inning. Coats gave up doubles to Kayla Cooper and Ericka Bynum in the first, which gave Shorter a 1-0 lead, but the Hawks struggled to break through against her the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, Shorter starter Maddie Bray, who already had thrown one no-hitter in the tournament, began working on another one. Through six innings, OC had only advanced one baserunner past first base, that when the Hawks committed consecutive errors in the fourth with two outs. Bray looked more than capable of riding that 1-0 lead all the way.

But with two outs in the seventh, Monique Elliott drew a walk, giving the Lady Eagles a chance. Lauren Pittman reached when Shorter shortstop Kendall Johnson threw away her grounder, sending Elliott to third base. Heath opted to stick with senior No. 9-hole hitter Sarah Endres and she rewarded that faith by lacing a double to right-center field, scoring Elliott with the tying run.

“I was real proud of that,” Heath said. “We broke up a no-hitter there with two outs, scored a run and went a couple more innings.”

OC threatened again in the ninth against reliever Christina Ezell (22-6), with Martha Thomas hitting a two-out double, but couldn’t bring Thomas home. A two-out error in the bottom of the 10th allowed Maggie Meachum to reach base and opened the door for Shorter. Meachum stole second base, went to third on a single by Johnson and scored when Cooper single to left field.

Coats, who represented OC on the all-tournament team along with Pittman and Kala Ratliff, took the loss despite a masterful, gutty performance. Heath marveled that she was able to go the distance against the Hawks.

“That last game, we were going to see how long she could go,” Heath said. “We didn’t know if she could go one, two or three innings, but she pitched all night. It was just an outstanding performance.”

The Lady Eagles advanced to the championship round by beating defending NCCAA champion Union 10-5 in the losers’ bracket final, thanks in good part to a 3-for-4 performance by Ratliff that included two home runs (after she’d hit only one all season) and six RBIs. It was OC’s second win over the Bulldogs in as many days.

Union (31-27) scored once in the first and second innings against OC starter Taylor Mosher, with Alex Williams and Whitney Christian delivering run-scoring hits for the Bulldogs. Ratliff hit a solo home run in the top of the third to pull OC within 2-1.

When Mosher ran into trouble in the third inning, with two runners on and one out, Heath turned to Coats and she never gave the ball back, throwing the final 13 1/3 innings of the day for the Lady Eagles.

Coats picked up her 24th win of the season, just one off the single-season school record set by OC Athletic Hall of Famer Leah Carrell in 2001. Coats also set the single-season record for winning percentage by a pitcher at .857, breaking the mark of .833 set by Carrell as a freshman in 1998.

Two Union errors preceded a three-run blast by Ratliff off Union pitcher Kelly Robey (25-20) that keyed a four-run fourth inning for OC that put the Lady Eagles up 5-2. Shelby Lamb’s RBI single in the fifth for Union cut that margin to 5-3, but Kendra Pierce hit a two-run homer during another four-run outburst by OC in the sixth to make it 9-3.

OC opened the day taking one on the chin, dropping a 10-0 decision to Shorter in five innings in the winners’ bracket final. The loss snapped the Lady Eagles’ 13-game winning streak and ended Coats’ amazing run of 21 straight winning decisions in the pitching circle. It was only the third run-rule loss of the season for the Lady Eagles.

Shorter hit three home runs against Coats, who had surrendered only seven homers all season before Saturday. Cooper hit one on the first pitch in the bottom of the first, then Johnson added another to lead off the third and Felicia Morris followed with a one-out, two-run shot, also in the third.

OC’s only scoring chance came in the fourth, when Pierce and Thomas walked and Niki Davidson reach on an error, loading the bases, but Ezell struck out Courtney Starr to end the threat. The Hawks then scored six runs on seven hits in the bottom of the fourth.

Ezell threw a no-hitter while striking out seven, while Cooper, Morris and Johnson each finished with three RBIs for the Hawks.