The road to Columbus, Ga., for the NAIA Softball National Championship got a little longer for the USC Beaufort softball team Thursday, as the Sand Sharks lost 5-0 to Ave Maria in their opening game in the Sun Conference Tournament at the National Training Center in Clermont, Fla.
Ave Maria left-hander Emily Lemin scattered eight hits in the shutout as the seventh-seeded Gyrenes (27-28) beat the No. 2 seed Sand Sharks (35-10) for the first time in eight all-time meetings.
Each of the top three seeds lost their first game in the double-elimination tournament, with No. 3 Thomas losing 11-2 to No. 6 St. Thomas and No. 4 Southeastern routing No. 1 Embry-Riddle 10-1 in five innings.
USCB and Thomas will square off in an elimination game at 9 a.m. Friday, while No. 5 Warner will face Ave Maria in another elimination game at the same time. The USCB-Thomas winner will face Embry-Riddle in the loser's bracket at 11:30 a.m., while St. Thomas and Southeastern meet in the winner's bracket at the same time.
USCB goes into the loser's bracket riding a three-game losing streak for the first time in program history thanks to a few defensive miscues and a failure to deliver big hits with runners on base. The Sand Sharks made three errors and managed eight hits -- including three from Marissa Becker and two from Alexandria Simmons -- but left 10 runners on base as they were shut out for the first time all season and only the second time in the past two years.
An error helped open the door for two Gyrenes runs in the third inning, as Cheyenne Benson delivered an RBI single and Marlie Braddy added a sacrifice fly for a 2-0 lead. The Sand Sharks kept it close until the sixth, when Kingsley Avery belted a two-run triple to center and scored from third when teammate Jessenia Gonzalez was caught in a rundown between first and second.
USCB squandered a number of opportunities, stranding two in the first and third innings and leaving the bases loaded in the sixth.
Kristy Cook (13-7) pitched well but was tagged with the loss, allowing two unearned runs on four hits over four innings, and Sun Conference Pitcher of the Year Ashlie Layman gave up three runs on four hits in three innings of relief.
Avery went 3-for-4 with two runs and two RBIs and Benson added two hits and an RBI for the Gyrenes.