OKLAHOMA CITY (May 10, 2014) – Courtney Starr sprinted into foul territory, intent on catching the softball for the final out. After making a sliding grab, she ran almost as fast into the arms of fellow Oklahoma Christian outfielder Sarah Endres for a big embrace.
It was a day of celebration for OC softball on Saturday, as the Lady Eagles captured the program’s first-ever postseason title with a 5-2 win over Central Baptist (Ark.) in the championship round of the National Christian College Athletic Association Central Region tournament at Tom Heath Field.
OC (39-14) is headed to a national tournament for only the third time in school history and for the first time since making the NAIA tournament field in 2003. The Lady Eagles will carry an 11-game winning streak – matching their longest of the season – into the NCCAA Championship, which will begin Thursday at Botetourt Sports Complex in Troutville, Va.
“It’s been a long time, with a lot of close calls,” said Tom Heath, who has coached the Lady Eagles since the program’s inception in 1995. “We got beat by Central Baptist last year and missed winning that tournament by one game. It took a lot of hard work and we’re really proud of this team and what we’ve accomplished this year.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s what you work for. We keep telling the players, ‘It’s the process and don’t worry about the outcome.’ If you work hard, the outcome will take care of itself, and we’ve been doing that this year … and it paid off. We get to enjoy the outcome a little bit.”
The Lady Eagles were much the best team in the regional tournament, outscoring their four opponents by a combined 47-4. OC won its first three games – against Hillsdale Baptist, Mid-America Christian and Colorado Christian – by mashing the ball, but against Central Baptist (37-11), the Lady Eagles used more of a station-to-station approach on offense.
Only three of OC’s 10 hits were for extra bases, but the Lady Eagles were terrors on the basepaths, stealing seven bases – including two each by Lauren Chatigny and Endres. Up and down the lineup, players came up with timely hits, as five players each had one RBI.
“The pitcher gave us a little trouble with her off-speed pitch, so we had to go to the short game some, as well as take advantage of any opportunities we had to steal bases and get ourselves in scoring position,” Heath said. “Once we did that, our hitters came through. We got a couple of big hits.”
Combined with another strong performance by freshman pitcher Shea Coats, it was a winning formula. Coats (22-2) won her 20th straight decision, allowing three hits and one earned run while walking none and striking out 12.
Shortstop Kendra Pierce, a junior from Oklahoma City, earned tournament most valuable player honors, going 11-for-16 (.688) with three doubles, 10 runs scored and nine RBIs during the four games. As a team, OC hit .447 for the tournament.
“It’s taken a lot of time to peak as a team and I think we’ve definitely started to do that,” Pierce said. “It’s awesome that we’re peaking at the right time. We’re helping each other out and working as a team.”
The Lady Eagles broke through against Central Baptist starter Jessica Sheldon (24-8) in the third inning. Endres walked and stole both second and third bases before scoring on a single by Chatigny. In the fourth, Niki Davidson – who had three hits – led off with a double and scored on a single by Monique Elliott.
Sheldon, who pitched a complete game for the Mustangs in a 4-2 win over Colorado Christian in an elimination game earlier Saturday, tired a bit in the fifth and OC took advantage. Chatigny singled to lead off the inning and Pierce’s double into the left-center field gap scored her to make it 3-0. One out later, Davidson singled home Pierce.
Central Baptist took advantage of a leadoff error in the sixth and a wild pitch to score twice. Raeann Surrett, who reached on the error, scored on the wild pitch, and Tiffani Pledger – who had singled – moved to second base. Pledger scored on a single by Haley Baugh, but Coats retired Miranda Manchester on an infield popup and Mariah Bozarth on a grounder back to the pitcher.
OC slugger Martha Thomas, who had struck out only 10 times all season, fanned in her first three at-bats against Sheldon before launching a one-out pitch over the right-field wall in the seventh inning. It was Thomas’ 13th home run of the year, tying her with Kayla Jennings (2012) for OC’s single-season record in that category.
“They had her number three times with that off-speed pitch,” Heath said. “It took just one mistake and the pitcher made one and (Thomas) turned on it.”
Coats retired the Mustangs in order in the bottom of the seventh, with Starr catching the foul ball off the bat of Caley Perry for the final out, setting off the program’s first postseason banner presentation. The win avenged OC’s loss to the Mustangs in last year’s regional title game in Conway, Ark.
Sometime on Sunday, the Lady Eagles should learn their national-tournament schedule.
“It feels awesome to finally be here,” Pierce said. “We’ve tried, and now we’re finally here.”