SALISBURY, Md. – Stellar defense, strong pitching and offense that just kept coming led the No. 4 Salisbury University softball team to an 8-7 win against No. 5 Christopher Newport University on Saturday afternoon. The win was Salisbury's second in the NCAA Division III Salisbury, Maryland Super Regional, allowing the Sea Gulls to sweep the best-of-three series, sending the squad to the NCAA Championship next week in Tyler, Texas.
This will mark Salisbury's eighth appearance at the Division III Championship, and makes it back-to-back appearances after Salisbury finished third in 2013.
"My emotions are pretty high right now," Salisbury Head Coach Margie Knight said following the win. "I was telling the team, I think in July, people never thought we would be where we are right now and the odds just kept getting in our favor – the more games we played, the more this team believed in themselves, the more our players, who were on the bench last year crafting their skills, stepped in and just never missed a beat and played well all year. So we've reached one of our goals, which is to get back to the National Championship, now we've got one more to go."
Salisbury jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead on Saturday, without the benefit of a hit. Christopher Newport University pitcher Krista Lewis walked senior Harley Hill, the Sea Gull leadoff batter, to begin the game, as Salisbury was playing as the visiting team.
Senior Angelia McDowell would attempt to sacrifice Hill to second, laying down a soft bunt in the direction of Christopher Newport third baseman Alexis Pope. The ball went off the tip of Pope's glove and into foul ground, and both runners were safe. Following a strikeout, a walk to load the bases and a pop out, Lewis issued her third free pass of the frame to give the Sea Gulls the game's first run.
The Captains would get a run back in the bottom of the first off Salisbury starting pitcher Rachel Johnson, but Johnson would even things up in the top of the second, belting the first pitch she saw from Lewis to straightaway center field for her first collegiate home run and a 4-1 lead.
The Gulls would add three runs in the top of the fourth inning to push the lead to 7-1, ripping three hits in the frame. Singles by sophomore Molly Simpson and Hill, with a walk to Johnson in the middle, loaded the bases with one out. Senior Virginia Walther stepped to the plate to pinch hit and came up with a single to center field, scoring Simpson, before sophomore Kim Dorsey and Knussman each brought in runs with infield grounders for a 7-1 advantage.
Johnson pushed across her second run of the day with an RBI single to left, scoring Malgieri, for an 8-1 lead, but the Captains would bounce back.
After giving up a single to open the second inning, Johnson retired nine-straight batters, allowing the next runner to reach base in the fifth on a lead-off single by Pope. Another single put two runners on when Karlee Holzbach came up as a pinch hitter and delivered a three-run home run to get Christopher Newport within four runs.
The Captains' offense continued in the sixth, as they loaded the bases with three-consecutive singles. Back-to-back walks brought in a pair of runs, cutting the deficit to 8-6 and senior Kathryn Larson came on in relief of Johnson.
Kristina McLaughlin sent a single to right field, scoring another, and the Salisbury lead was down to one, 8-7.
It was Larson and the Salisbury defense that finished off the win from there. The next batter, Sabrina Hill ripped a line shot down the first base line, but Harley Hill was positioned perfectly, on the line, snaring the liner and outracing McLaughlin to the bag for the unassisted double play, ending the inning and stranding the tying run at third.
"It was a huge play," Hill said of the momentum-turning double play. "But I was ready for it, I was expecting it."
Salisbury needed one more outstanding defensive play, started by Harley Hill, to seal the win.
In the seventh, Tori Clarke would lead off the inning with a single off Larson, but would make it no further. Taylor Dillow sent a sharp grounder to Harley Hill, again playing just in front of the bag. The Huntingtown, Md., native scooped up the grounder and spun to get the lead runner at second base. Sophomore Kim Dorsey, the shortstop, made the quick turn at second, sending the ball to Simpson, the second baseman, covering first for the twin killing. Larson would strike out the final batter to finish off her second save of the year, setting off the Salisbury celebration.
"We're pretty relentless in what we do at practice," Knight said. "We practice very hard and we go over these little plays all the time – we turn double plays, we press the ball in our glove – we do all the little things and there'll be sometimes years where you don't see things happen, and today we have two double plays that got us out of two big jams."
Harley Hill, who was also 4-for-8 at the plate, with three runs scored, was named the super regional's Most Outstanding Player.
Johnson picked up her 25th win of the season in Saturday's game, as she earned Salisbury's two wins on the weekend and was named the super regional's Most Outstanding Pitcher.
Salisbury will travel to Tyler, Texas for the Division III Championship next week, opening play at 2:30 p.m., eastern time, on Thursday, May 22. The Sea Gulls will play the winner of the Naperville, Illinois Super Regional, either No. 13 University of St. Thomas (Minn.) or North Central College. The teams split the first two games of their super regional and will conclude play on Sunday in the rubber match.