Only five days after the celebrations of Selection Sunday, the Eastern Kentucky University softball team traveled down to Knoxville, Tennessee to take on the challenge of the Knoxville Regional of the NCAA Softball Championship. Joining them in the double-elimination regional would be Tennessee, James Madison and future ASUN rival Liberty.
EKU drew host Tennessee in their first game on Friday, May 21. The Lady Vols got the scoring started in the 1st inning when Ally Shipman singled to bring in Amanda Ayala. The Colonels were not content to stay silent as Miranda Lopez doubled down the third-base line to bring in Vianna Barron from third base to tie the game 1-1.
That score would be the last for EKU as Tennessee extended their lead in the 5th and 6th inning with four RBIs and a homerun by Kaitlin Parsons that brought in two more runners. By the end of the 6th inning, Tennessee jumped to a 8-1 lead and never looked back.
Miranda Lopez connected again in the top of the 7th to find first base, but nothing would come of it as the Colonels fell to the Lady Vols, 8-1 and moved into the consolation bracket of the regional.
Despite the loss, EKU head coach Jane Worthington found positives from the team’s performance, “I am pretty proud of our players. They came out, they worked hard and they competed. I think we did a good job early. It’s just hard to miss over the plate and keep those good hitters down.”
On Saturday it was a battle between future ASUN rivals as EKU took on Liberty in an elimination game.
After a scoreless 1st inning, the Liberty Flames would strike first and in big fashion in the top of the second inning getting five unearned runs, capitalizing off three fielding errors made by the Colonels.
“We’ve been a little inconsistent throughout the year, maybe some nerves. We are super capable of making all of those plays...We probably had to work out a few nerves early and then settle in. Once they did that then we took care of the ball,” said Worthington.
Bethany Todd replaced Tori Peterson in the circle in the top of the second to try to quell the Liberty attack. After the 2nd inning, Todd pitched five straight scoreless innings to keep the Flames at bay.
The Colonels answered back in the bottom of the 4th inning after loading the bases. Ariyana Miranda grounded out to bring in Zoe Mihalicz from third to score the only point for the Colonels.
Both teams went scoreless for the next three innings to end the game 5-1 with EKU being the first team to be eliminated from the regional.
EKU softball ends the season with a record of 35-17 (22-9 OVC) and with only the third OVC Tournament Championship title in EKU history.
Throughout the season a constant for EKU has been the fan support. Whether it is at home or away games, there is always some maroon in the crowd cheering them on. There was even more maroon in the crowd in Knoxville than normal. Surrounded by the sea of orange, the EKU faithful made their voices heard over the enthusiastic Tennessee crowd.
“I can’t speak enough on our fans. We have such a great support system, not only at home games but at away games. A lot of people came, admin, our AD (athletics director) came from Richmond, we are just really thankful for them and we felt their presence here all weekend,” said EKU catcher Zoe Mihalicz after the game against Liberty.
Saturday’s game against Liberty, who were the ASUN Tournament Champions, gave EKU a taste of what competition will be like in their new conference next season.
Worthington focused on the strength of the teams in the ASUN next year, “I am looking forward and excited to move to the ASUN… If you count us, there would be three teams representing the ASUN, if the same teams came back next year. That’s great for a non-power five conference.”
EKU softball will take on opponents in the ASUN conference next season in a schedule that has not been released yet. The Colonels will be looking to make it a habit to return to NCAA Regionals in the coming years.
“This should be the expectation now, not just the goal,” Worthington told the press in attendance.