JACKSONVILLE, Ala. – A pair of late runs and the threat of a bases loaded situation was nearly enough for the University of Tennessee at Martin softball team to complete a heroic comeback in the top of the seventh inning before ultimately falling to No. 3 seed Eastern Illinois 6-4 in the opening round of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament this afternoon.
The No. 6 seed Skyhawks (27-26-1) nearly completed a comeback which saw the visitors head into the final frame with a four run deficit. Scoring a pair of runs, cutting the Panther margin in half, saw the Skyhawks place the potential tying run at second and the bases loaded with just one out. Fate would not side with the Skyhawks however as the final two batters were retired in dramatic fashion to end the threat.
Offensively the Skyhawks were led by three players who tallied multi-hit performances. Deven Wilson tallied the team’s lone RBI of the day to go along with a pair of hits. Joining Wilson with a pair of hits was the tandem of Stephanie Nidiffer and Kelsey Dixon.
A pair of pitchers saw action in the circle for the Skyhawks as Casey Vincent tallied the start. Vincent (7-9) struggled on the day, allowing five earned runs on six hits through 3.2 innings of work. Freshman Brooke Kennedy appeared in relief, producing a solid outing with 2.1 shutout innings.
“I told the girls going into the game that we had to play solid defense and strong pitching,” said UT Martin coach Donley Canary. “We opened the game with too many miscues and that haunted us throughout the game. After giving up a couple early runs, we were able to produce good at-bats in the late innings and produced a gutsy effort. When we settled down and stuck to our early message, it gave us a shot to win the game. Our backs are now up against the wall and we have to fight to continue our season.”
Eastern Illinois (38-16) was paced by Carly Willert who went 3-for-4 on the day with a game-high three RBIs. Stephanie Maday earned the started, allowing two unearned runs in 2.2 innings of work. Hanna Mennenga (20-5) appeared in relief, notching the win after allowing one earned run in 4.1 innings.
After a scoreless first inning, Eastern Illinois struck first in the bottom of the second inning following a flurry of errors. Bailey O’Dell led off the inning with a single through the left side before a sacrifice bunt moved the pinch runner Kaylie Pruett into scoring position. The Panthers would get on the board with a single by Ashleigh Westover scoring Pruett from second.
The game would take a strange turn on the next play as Westover attempted to score on a hit just in front of the plate, as the catcher attempted to recover the ball for the play at the plate, she could not make the play before an errant throw to the center field wall scored both Westover and Jennette Isaac to give the Panthers the 3-0 advantage.
UT Martin would look to get back into the game in the top of the third, cutting into the margin. Dixon led off the inning with a double to the left center gap, followed by a walk by Gabby Glenn, leaving runners at first and second with no outs. The Skyhawks would later get on the board as an error allowed Dixon to score on the play before a ball off Vincent’s bat dribbled between the first baseman’s legs to score Glenn, cutting the margin to just 3-2.
The Panthers would get back on the scoreboard in the bottom of the fourth inning. Vincent was able to record the first two outs of the inning before giving up a walk to Hayley Beck. A single to right center by Isaac would move Beck to third, with Isaac advancing to second on the throw to third. The Panthers would use a punctuation two-out three run home run by Willert to push their advantage to 6-2.
With the Skyhawks trailing by four runs in the top of the seventh inning, they looked for a dramatic comeback. Carly Gonzales got the inning started with a single up the middle before being moved to second on a single by Nidiffer. The bases would then become loaded as pinch hitter Lauren Smith was hit by a pitch. With the bases loaded, Wilson would single through the left side, scoring Gonzales from third. Nidiffer would soon cut the margin to 6-4 on a passed ball. Kayla Wade would draw a six-pitch walk to load the bases once again. Fate would not be on the side of the Skyhawks however as the final two hitters would be retired to end the game.
With the loss, the Skyhawks will advance into the consolation round of the tournament field and will take on No. 7 seed Tennessee Tech on Thursday, May 8 at 10 a.m. The Skyhawks split the regular season series against the Golden Eagles.