CLERMONT, Fla. -- With another goal accomplished and another title under its belt, there's still a sense of more to come for the University of South Carolina Beaufort softball team, but the 10th-ranked Sand Sharks took a moment to celebrate Saturday night after claiming the Sun Conference tournament title at National Training Center with a 3-2 win in eight innings against St. Thomas.
The Sand Sharks (41-4) went 3-0 in the tournament, defeating the Bobcats twice, to add the tournament crown to their regular-season title. The seventh-seeded Bobcats didn't go quietly, though.
St. Thomas (20-22) twice rallied from one-run deficits and forced extra innings, but Alexandria Simmons' squeeze bunt pushed home the go-ahead run in the eighth and freshman Ashlie Layman shut down the Bobcats in the bottom of the frame to clinch the win.
The Sand Sharks struck first, scoring in the third inning when Katie Rietkovich beat out a bunt and an error on the throw to first allowed Missy Hughes to score. St. Thomas answered in the fifth on Jessica Matias' RBI double, tying it at 1.
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USCB went back in front in the sixth, when Maddie Byrd singled to left to score Sammi Shaffren. The Bobcats again bounced back in the bottom of the inning and tied it on Kristen Scott's RBI single.
That prompted the end of the day for Sand Sharks ace Kristy Cook, who had pitched every inning of the tournament for USCB to that point. Cook allowed two runs (one earned) over 5 1-3 innings before handing the ball to Layman, who promptly got a ground ball back to the circle and started an inning-ending double play to keep the score tied at 2.
That's where it stayed until the eighth, when C.J. Browder led off the inning with a double, took third on Byrd's bunt single and scored on Simmons' perfect squeeze bunt up the third-base line. The Bobcats got out of the inning without any further damage, but Layman (11-0) worked around a one-out single to close it out.
Brenda Emerson (9-9) was hung with the loss. She went all eight innings, allowing three runs on 12 hits.
Layman allowed two hits in 2 2-3 innings of scoreless relief. Browder was 3 for 4 and Byrd was 2 for 4 with an RBI to lead USCB's offense.
The Sand Sharks now await the release of the brackets for the inaugural NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round. USCB will be one of 10 host schools for the event, welcoming three teams to Hardeeville's Richard Gray Sports Complex for a double-elimination tournament from May 13-15. The champions at each site advance to the NAIA Softball National Championship from May 24-30 at South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus, Ga.