In the end, the final score was not indicative of how close the battle between these two teams really was.
Six straight Spring Hill batters reached base and four of them scored in the top of the ninth inning Wednesday as the Badgers outlasted the USC Beaufort Sand Sharks 7-3 in the championship of the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round at Richard Gray Sports Complex in Hardeeville.
Spring Hill (44-15) ended the season for the Sand Sharks (43-16) and advanced to the NAIA World Series held May 24-30 in Columbus, Ga. The Badgers forced a second game by handing USC Beaufort its first shutout of the season, 4-0, in the day's first game.
"It hurts right now because we worked so hard," said emotional USC Beaufort ace Kristy Cook (22-2), who pitched all 16 innings Wednesday for the Sand Sharks. "Honestly, we just have to take the time to heal and come back stronger, and next year, we'll take it from everybody."
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Cook took both losses on the day despite pitching well and pitched out of several tough situations late in the second game before the floodgates opened in the ninth.
"It takes a lot of momentum out of you in those tough situations," Cook said. "You just have to have faith in your team that they will come through when it's their turn."
In the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, Cook was under fire. She stranded seven Badgers on the bases, but the Sand Sharks couldn't scratch across a run in the bottom of the frames despite ample chances.
"We didn't take advantage of some opportunities," USCB coach Ty Rietkovich said. "And we obviously took some away from them. And I'm sure they feel the same way. But we had some great chances at the end and we just didn't get it done."
In the Sand Sharks' seventh, pinch hitter Sammi Shaffren coaxed a leadoff walk, and Missi Hughes sacrificed the potential winning run to second. Katie Rietkovich followed with a scorching line drive into deep left field, and it appeared the Sand Sharks would win.
But Spring Hill's senior left fielder Katelyn Hinson made a spectacular leaping grab going away from the infield on the ball hit over her head and easily doubled up Shaffren, who was sprinting for home.
"It was a great catch over the girl's head," Rietkovich said. "It was just one of those things. The girl made a great play."
In the sand Sharks' eighth, C.J. Browder reached on a two-out infield hit to short and promptly stole second base. Maddie Byrd followed with a slow grounder in the hole between short and third that it appeared she would beat out. But Browder collided with the shortstop and was called out for interference, ending the threat.
In the bottom of the ninth, things just fell apart for the Sand Sharks after a flyout by Sam Leach to open the frame.
Shea Blanchard singled to center, and Mariha Partman, who reached base in all five plate appearances, reached on Browder's error. Jade Bourgeois, whose three-run homer in the third had accounted for all of the Badgers' runs to that point, singled to score Blanchard and give Spring Hill the lead.
Taylor Webre tried to sacrifice the runners over, but the ball was misplayed by Cook, loading the bases. Hinson singled to score Partman, and the ball was misplayed by Hughes, allowing Bourgeois to score as well.
After Cook hit Taylor Lahasky to again load the bases, Elise deBruler scored Webre with a flyball to center. Mercifully, the ninth batter of the inning, Raleigh Downs, popped out to third to end the frame.
There was to be no big inning against Spring Hill ace Carolina Sagrera (35-9), who struck out nine and kept the Sand Sharks in check most of the day. She retired Shelby Zipperer, Mariaha Sanborn and pinch hitter Caitlin Vaughn in order to punch the Badgers' ticket.
"We just reached the point where only one team can be happy at the end of the day," Rietkovich said. "We've got nothing to be ashamed of. This is not high school any more. A lot of these girls won't see each other for a while, and I told them they need to appreciate everyone's effort and make sure everyone knows how much you love them."
In the early game, Sagrera threw a three-hitter to shut out the top-seeded Sand Sharks, 4-0, for the first time this season and force the second game.
Sagrera struck out seven and never allowed a runner past second base.
"We lost focus of our plan (in the first game) and we let her control the tempo," Rietkovich said. "Obviously, if you can't score, you can't win."
Cook allowed just four hits, but two were two-run home runs, one by Partman in the first inning and the other in the top of the seventh by Leach.
Spring Hill's Leach had no home runs and just eight extra-base hits for the season coming into the Opening Round. In three games against the Sand Sharks, she rapped two home runs and a double. ... Browder was 6 for 11 against Sagrera, also reaching twice on errors. ... Sanborn was 4 for 9 with three home runs and five RBIs for the tournament.