Cajun softball successful in NCAA opener

by Dan McDonald

It wasn't easy, but UL's softball team made it through the first step in NCAA Tournament play Friday. Now they'll face LSU's Tigers in the biggest game of the season so far at noon Saturday in the NCAA Regional Tournament. BATON ROUGE It wasn't a typical Jordan Wallace pitching performance for UL's softball team.

Friday afternoon also wasn't the Ragin' Cajuns' typical hitting effort.

But it was enough for the UL team to advance in the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional, and set up the matchup that everyone expected.

The second-seeded Cajuns posted solo runs in three different innings in taking a 3-0 victory over third-seeded Northwestern State in the regional opener, and will now face host LSU in Saturday's noon winners bracket contest. The regional-host Tigers took a 3-2 win over fourth seeded Central Connecticut State in Friday's nightcap.

The Cajuns (44-13) had only seven hits, all singles, as NSU pitcher Kylie Roos (17-5) kept the country's second-best slugging team in check.

"It's a postseason game," says Wallace, who struck out 11 in a one-hit performance. "It's going to be like a one-run game every time."

"We knew it was going to be hard-fought," says UL coach Michael Lotief. "Northwestern was prepared, but our kids were prepared, too."

The upstart Lady Demons (40-14), who got into the NCAA with a surprise win in the Southland Conference tournament,  forced Wallace into a long day despite getting only Jordan Palmer's two-out single to left field for their only hit. Wallace walked six and had to throw 144 pitches as NSU batters continually forced long counts and fouled off pitch after pitch.

"Every team has a plan for every pitcher," Wallace says. "Their plan worked ... they took me to a lot of full counts. I had to figure out the strike zone ... that took a couple of innings, but that's what you expect in postseason."

Even with the 11 strikeouts and the lone hit, Wallace needed some help from the defense, and she got that herself in a pivotal fifth inning when UL led 2-0 and the Demons had tying runs in scoring position with one out after a pair of walks and a sacrifice bunt. Cali Burke laid a bunt down that Wallace quick-flipped to catcher Sarah Draheim, and Draheim expertly blocked the plate while tagging Palmer for the second out.

"The squeeze was a bang-bang play," says NSU coach Donald Pickett. "A two or three run deficit in this setting is bigger than where it normally is, and we had to try to get a run there."

Wallace got the third out on a ground ball, and the Cajuns provided her some insurance one inning later when Nerissa Myers led off the sixth with a single and scored her third run of the game on Shellie Landry's RBi single to left, her second hit of the game.

An NSU defensive lapse helped UL score a first-inning run, when right fielder Shenequia Abby misplayed Brianna Cherry's fly ball into a base hit after Myers' leadoff single. After a two-out walk to Landry, Sara Corbello drew a bases-loaded free pass for the 1-0 lead.

"To score first is every team's goal," says Wallace, who had nine of her strikeouts in the first four innings. "In the postseason that's even more important, so for us to get that first run was big."

The Cajuns added a run in the fourth and should have had more, with Draheim's RBI single plating Myers with two outs. Leandra Maly walked to lead off the inning and moved up on Natalie Fernandez' bouncing single up the middle, but Myers' ground ball up the middle was bobbled by Roos before she threw to third, and Maly easily beat the throw except that third base umpire Larry Nagal called her out. Video later showed that the call is an early candidate for worst in this year's NCAA Tournament.

At the end it didn't matter, since other than the fifth inning Wallace allowed only one other runner to reach second base, that coming on Palmer's two-out single in the second after a one-out walk to NSU's Cheyenne DeLaGarza.

"She's good," Pickett says of Wallace, who had won 16 straight decisions before a 1-0 eight-inning loss to South Alabama in the Sun Belt Tournament. "She works the ball up and down, and that's the toughest to hit. She was able to come up high and then came down low with off-speed. She kept us off balance."

Wallace figures to take the circle in Saturday's noon contest against the host and No. 9 national seed Tigers, only 18 hours after finishing off her 29th win of the season.

"At this juncture, it's win or go home," Lotief says. "She (Wallace) has a tremendous will, she's a tremendous competitor. Who knows what's going to happen tomorrow, but I know that she'll fight.

"It's something she's been though. She got extended in the opening game of the Sun Belt tournament (an 8-7 extra-inning win over FIU) and came out the next day and had a masterful performance. She's feeling very confident, and this is the time of year that is the most important."