Turnaround season building block for the Panthers
TOPEKA — Despite falling in two straight games in the NJCAA Region VI Div. II District D Championship round Sunday at Hummer Sports Park in Topeka, Neosho County Community College softball improved dramatically from 2014 to 2015.
Finishing this season with a 27-22 record was a major improvement from the 18-27 2014 season.
No. 5 seed Neosho fell in game one 2-1 to No. 2 seed Labette. In game two the Cardinals won 19-6.
The Panthers had a chance in game one. In the sixth, Karloyna Gomez drove a ball deep to left center fence that was about a yard shy of leaving the yard. A run scored on the play to narrow the Cardinal margin to 2-1 in the sixth inning. In the seventh, Taylor Pence got on base with a two-out double. Nia Maxwell came in as a pinch hitter but struck out on swings to end the game.
Labette dominated in game two early, scoring three runs in the first and six runs in the second. Neosho rallied in the bottom of the seventh, scoring six runs but fell short in the comeback attempt.
“This season meant a lot,” Head softball Coach Kim Alexander said. “First recruited class for (Samantha Allen) and I. This was it. This was our girls and we wanted to see what we could roll with. We’ve always had the previous coach before us, so this was us.”
With several sophomores leaving, this sophomore class has established the standard for the future of Panther softball.
“It’s a building block for the future,” Alexander said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to miss the heck out of my sophomores. They came in and turned our program around. They gave us a chance. We went from winning a ball game to them buying in and believing in us. That takes a lot to go to a program that is not very good and wanting to try and make that different. A lot of the kids we brought in had a ton of different offers and could have went a different way, but they choose to come to Neosho and they turned it around for us.”
Neosho earned a spot in the championship game finishing Saturday 2-0.
The Panthers defeated No. 3 Murray State in the quarterfinal 9-0 after five innings and held off No. 6 Hutchinson Community College in the semifinal 7-4.
Against Hutch, the Panthers scored five runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to take a 7-2 advantage. The scoring in the inning was started by a Taylor Pence inside-the-park-homerun that scored Katelyn Shepard, who was pinch running for Anna Crawford.
“I kept fouling them off and she kept throwing me outside,” Pence said. “I was waiting for her to throw one over the plate because I was going to hit it hard. When I hit it I saw it going past her. I thought ‘I better run really, really fast.’ I did. I rounded third and I thought they had already got it in and Coach A kept giving me the go sign. When I looked I was like ‘yeah let’s go.’”
The inning was crucial to the Panthers, who were matching runs with the Blue Dragons until that point.
“It was huge,” Alexander said. “We definitely needed to score some runs going into the seventh. We had to roll stuff up in some huge situations. Anna Crawford hit the ball well. Pence came up huge right there with an in the park homerun. Then we followed back with Tia Parker getting a triple. Definitely got some confidence going into that seventh inning.”
Hutchinson scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh with a one out, would-have-been-three run homerun. Dragon baserunners crossed on the trot and were called out. Two of the runs scored on the homerun, the third run was called out. The Panther lead was narrowed to 7-4 on the homer.
“Huge break,” Alexander said. “It would have been 7-5 with one out.”
Lexie Heiniger struck out five in the complete game, nine-hit, four-run performance.
Crawford was 3-for-3 with a RBI and a run scored. Taylor Bolden was 2-for-4 with two RBIs. Pence was 1-for-2 with two RBIs and run scored on the inside-the-park-homerun. Becki Hendrickson drove in a run and went 1-for-3 at the plate.
In the quarterfinal game, the Panthers took care of business early against Murray State. Neosho scored five runs in the first and three runs in the second.
Meaghan Thompson pitched a complete game, two=hit, shutout. She struck out five.
Karolyna Gomez and Hendrickson were 2-for-3 with a run scored. Thompson drove in two runs and went 1-for-3 at the plate. Crawford was 1-for-2 with two RBIs and two runs scored. Tiara Ewy went 2-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored. Bolden batted 1-for-2 with a RBI and a run scored.
Labette advances to the NJCAA National Tournament in Clinton, Miss., May 13-16. The Blue Dragons upset the No. 2 seed Labette in the quarterfinal. Labette beat Murray State 14-0 to avoid elimination in the double elimination tournament Saturday. Sunday, Labette went 3-0, beating Hutchinson in the losers’ bracket final before defeating Neosho twice in the Championship round.