Like lightning out of the blue, the East Tennessee State softball team struck an unsuspecting target Wednesday.
The Bucs got a two-run homer from shortstop Sam Lower and a gritty pitching performance from Katie Wolff to defeat USC Upstate 3-2 at Basler Field. The victory snapped a 26-game losing streak in the Atlantic Sun Conference dating back to last season.
“We’ll take it. We’re not going to turn it back in, that’s for sure,” said ETSU coach Brad Irwin. “You come away from that scratching your head, wondering why we can’t put that kind of game together more often.
“We’ve just been finding ways to lose.”
Irwin’s teams have in fact managed just five conference wins in his three seasons here. None was more improbable than this, coming in a worst-versus-first matchup.
The Bucs (13-32) entered the day at 0-22 in the league, while the Spartans (37-9) were leading the standings at 17-5. They were ranked in the Top 25 earlier this month.
Making the upset more remarkable, the teams played a double-header two weeks ago in Spartanburg, and Upstate won by 12-0 and 11-0 scores.
This time Wolff, a junior right-hander, held the Spartans in check with a four-hitter, and Lower delivered the decisive blow to left-center in the fifth inning. It came on the 10th pitch of her at-bat, after the senior had fouled off four straight.
“I knew it was gone as soon as I hit it,” said Lower. “It was awesome.”
And for a couple of days, at least, the Bucs can smile.
“It feels good after the difficult season we’ve had,” said Irwin. “There’s no doubt when you get beat as much as we have, there’s some head hanging and frustration. But this is a good group that keeps coming out and competing.”
The Bucs finish their season this weekend with a three-game series at home against Kennesaw State.
An outstanding pitching matchup highlights the Friday night opener of a three-game series at Thomas Stadium.
Kerry Doane will start on the mound for ETSU and Stephen Janas for Kennesaw State.
Doane, a senior right-hander, is 8-1 and leads the nation with eight complete games. He has an earned-run average of 1.97, with 46 strikeouts and 11 walks.
Meanwhile, Janas is 6-0 with an 0.70 ERA. The 6-foot-5 junior right-hander has 39 strikeouts and seven walks.
The Bucs are trying to stay in the Atlantic Sun Conference race after dropping two of three games last weekend at Stetson. At 11-7, they trail North Florida (11-4) and Mercer (12-6).
Four teams currently have seven losses. Kennesaw State is 9-9.
Yaser Zaatini, ETSU’s director of tennis, couldn’t help but walk away from the conference championships with mixed emotions on Sunday.
The Bucs had captured the men’s title for the seventh straight year, but not before the top-seeded ETSU women were knocked off by North Florida. The Lady Bucs had rolled through the regular season undefeated, including a 4-0 shutout of the Lady Ospreys, but they lost the rematch on their home courts 4-2.
“I was happy at the end of the day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the girls,” Zaatini said Wednesday. “I was stressing out in the beginning, watching them lose. The matchups just didn’t go our way.
“It was the same thing last year – girls losing early and guys winning late. It makes for an emotional day.”
The Bucs (13-6) avenged their only conference loss with a 4-2 victory over North Florida, the top seed, and now look toward another NCAA tournament date. Pairings will be announced during a selection show next Tuesday.
The nearest regional sites are Knoxville, Nashville and Durham, N.C.
“It won’t matter as much if we’re the third seed, and I think we’re close to that,” said Zaatini. “That way you don’t have to play the host team in the first round.”
The Bucs have won two NCAA matches, both as the 3-seed at their site. They beat Alabama 4-2 in Knoxville three years ago, and defeated Notre Dame by the same score in Columbus, Ohio in 2008.
The women’s golf team is also waiting to see what direction its postseason takes.
The Lady Bucs won the conference tournament last week at Jekyll Island, Ga., to earn an NCAA regional berth. They’ll be sent to Auburn (East), Oklahoma (Central) or Stanford (West) to compete for a spot at nationals.
The regionals are 54-hole events that run from May 9-11. Coach Stefanie Shelton said Wednesday she expects to find out her destination during a conference call by the end of the week.
“This will be a brand-new thing for this group of players, and they’re excited about it,” said Shelton, who is in her 10th season at ETSU. “This is the greatest depth we’ve ever had one through five, and hopefully all the girls can play well. The best thing about this team is we haven’t had to rely on one person to lead us.”
The Lady Bucs will be making their third regional appearance. They were also A-Sun champs in 2008, and received an at-large invitation three years ago.
They finished 15th each time to miss qualifying for the NCAAs.
“We really want to take a team to nationals for the first time,” said Shelton. “Nina (Muehl) went as an individual a few years ago, but we need to get the whole team there. As more and more teams get more competitive, it gets harder every year.”
The Lady Bucs placed three players in the top seven at the A-Sun tournament – junior Sian Evans (second), sophomore Gabrielle Wahl (third) and freshman Vivienne Chin (seventh). They won by 10 strokes.
This will be the third straight year the men’s golf team misses out on an NCAA regional appearance.
The Bucs finished runner-up to North Florida – the same result as last year – Tuesday at the Legends Golf Club in Braselton, Ga. The 17th-ranked Ospreys prevailed by 14 strokes.
ETSU sophomore Rhys Pugh finished second individually after dueling with North Florida’s MJ Macguire on the back nine. Pugh’s 2-under-par 70 left him two shots behind the medalist at 217.
Teammate Scott Gibson finished third, another shot back at 218.
All five ETSU players are underclassmen.