A game winning RBI double in the top of the seventh, and a game saving double play in the bottom sent the University of Great Falls softball team to its first Cascade Collegiate Conference Finals and clinched the program’s first trip to the NAIA Softball Championship. Those two plays were the key in a final inning 3-2 win over (20) Southern Oregon University, sending UGF to the finals where they would lose a heartbreaking 3-2 extra inning battle to CCC Champions Eastern Oregon University.
Both EOU and UGF will go to the 2016 NAIA Softball Championship, each claiming one of the CCC’s two automatic qualifiers to the national tournament.
The loss to Eastern Oregon ends a stunning run through the conference playoffs for a Lady Argo team that barely made it into the postseason to begin with. The run started with an upset win over (23) Oregon Tech and the team again beat a ranked opponent, this time 20th ranked SOU, to clinch a bid to nationals.
“We started out day one with this calming, confident presence that I hadn’t see out of this team yet this season,” UGF head coach Joey Egan said. “I had a gut feeling that we were going to make it just after day one, playing the way we did.”
After a loss to EOU the previous day, that confidence may have been a bit shaken early on against SOU, which manifested itself in three UGF errors leading to two unearned runs in the first five innings.
An equally sloppy performance from the Raiders brought in UGF junior Kyra Dorvall (16) in the third which still left the Lady Argos down 2-1 heading into the final two innings. It was then that UGF seemed to regain its composure starting with a game tying RBI double left center for pitcher Keeley Van Blaricom (6). The senior’s hit tied the game at 2-2 heading into the seventh.
That inning didn’t start well, with the first two UGF batters grounding out to second base, leaving senior Alex Lowry (14) at the plate with no one on and two outs. Though bleak on paper, the situation was made less so by Lowry’s tremendous hitting throughout the rest of the CCC Tournament.
“When Alex got up, she had this never say die attitude about her and just wasn’t able to give up the game. As soon as she got up to the plate, even with two outs, I don’t think there was anyone on our team that though we weren’t going to the championship,” Egan said. “She hit lights out this whole tournament and she just came up clutch so many times for us.”
Lowry did win the game on that at bat, but she did drive a single into right to get the game winning runner on base. The next batter was an equally clutch Hali Gruntowicz (19) who doubled to right center and brought Lowry home for the go ahead score.
That still left Van Blaricom the task of earning three more in the bottom of the seventh to close out the win and after giving up a single, a fielder’s choice bunt, and another single that looked like it might be too tall of a task. All of UGF’s earlier fielding woes were then made up for by senior Mindy Larson (4). The shortstop managed to reach a hard grounder hit in between herself and second base, quickly stepped on the bag, and threw to first to complete a game ending double play.
While the win was only a qualification for the conference final and not a conference championship in itself, it was a program defining moment regardless because it guaranteed UGF one of the CCC’s two automatic qualifiers. Having that safely tucked away, the team’s next task a rematch against Eastern Oregon in the conference finals.
Because Eastern Oregon had already beaten the Lady Argos and was still undefeated in the double elimination tournament, UGF would have to beat the Beacons twice in order to claim the conference title. In the end, that second game wasn’t necessary, with EOU making a rally in the bottom of the seventh to force extra innings and eventually win it in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Before that late comeback, UGF held a 2-1 lead heading into the seventh thanks to another excellent pitching performance from Van Blaricom who threw 14 2/3 innings over the course of three and a half hours and a strong fourth inning from the UGF bats.
Both of UGF’s two runs came in that inning. The first was an RBI single from junior Kylie Prough (18) which drove in Van Blaricom and the other an RBI double from junior catcher Jocelyn Kaufman (15).
Kaufman followed up a great defensive game against SOU to become the Lady Argo’s best hitter against EOU. The junior went 3-4 from the plate in the championship game with one RBI.
Throughout the tournament, Van Blaricom, and Lowry where the backbone of UGF’s unexpected run to nationals. Van Blaricom (13-7) finished the tournament having given up just seven earned runs in 28 2/3 innings pitched over the course of three days, while Lowry hit .400 with four runs and three of the team’s 12 RBIs.
“After every time Keeley pitches a game the other coach always comes up to me and says what a great pitcher she is or how fun of a pitcher she is to compete against,” Egan said of her pitcher. “Keeley was just so strong and athletic that she made it through almost 15 innings today.”
UGF now advances to the NAIA Tournament for the first time in program history. The opening round will be played from May 16-18 with specific dates, times, locations, and opponents to be announced later.
“My dad texted me this morning and said that we had the capability to change the course of this whole program and I think he’s right,” Egan said. “Making it to nationals is opening us to so much exposure for recruiting, so much exposure for our girls and now everybody gets a taste of what its like to get there.”
University of Great Falls Sports Information