vs. Saint Leo – First Round of NCAA Championship Finals
5/24/2018 – 3:30 p.m.
ST. GEORGE, Utah—The 29-game winning streak may have concluded Friday, but the Chico State softball team’s magical 2018 season keeps moving onward and upward. For only the second time in the program’s 50-year history, the Wildcats—thanks to a 4-3 victory over Dixie State in the winner-take-all third game of the NCAA West Super Regional—are heading to Salem, Virginia as one of the eight teams in all of Division II left standing that will compete in the NCAA Championship Finals.
The Trailblazers made the ‘Cats work for the coveted West Region trophy. Needing to beat Chico State twice Friday to keep their 2018 campaign alive, the Trailblazers won the first game 5-2 and grabbed an early 2-0 lead in the “if necessary” game, only to see the Wildcats mount a season-saving comeback on the strength of home runs from Breanna Martin, Claire Wayne and Karli Skowrup to pull out the roller-coaster 4-3 victory.
Chico State heads to the NCAA Championship Finals with a 55-4 record, while Dixie State ends its season with an overall mark of 42-10.
The Wildcats reach the “Elite Eight” for the first time in Head Coach Angel Shamblin’s nine years at the helm. The only other time a Chico State softball team advanced to the CCAA Championship Finals was back in 2002.
The Wildcats racked up a total of 14 hits Friday. Cyrena Taylor led the way with three hits, with Martin, Wayne and Amanda Flores collecting two knocks apiece. The three home runs the ‘Cats hit in Friday’s game-winning finale gives the team a program-record 61 on the season.
Friday’s first game saw the Wildcats’ Haley Gilham and Cambrie Hazel of Dixie State locked in the pitcher’s duel most expected in Thursday’s Super Regional opener. The Trailblazers left runners in scoring position in both the first and second inning, while a busted squeeze play in the top of the third short-circuited a Chico State scoring opportunity.
Dixie State broke the seal in the bottom of the third inning when Kenzie Sawyer singled home Janessa Bassett. Chico State pulled even in the top of the fourth inning, as Annie Weiss scored on a two-out Trailblazers error.
Dixie State immediately went back in front in the bottom of the fourth, as Dani Bartholf laced a home run just inside the left field
foul pole. It was only the second home run Gilham had given up all season, but it was enough to give the Trailblazers a 2-1 lead.
In the top of the fifth, a Wendy Cardinali two-out double allowed Megan Bowley to score all the way from first base to tie the game at 2-2. But Dixie State answered with three runs in its half of the fifth, with back-to-back RBI singles by Bartholf and Cassidy Morton giving the Trailblazers a 5-2 lead.
The Wildcats looked as though they were going to mount one of their patented late-inning comebacks, loading the bases in the top of the sixth inning, but instead came away empty. Sam Mulock came on in relief of Gilham to toss a scoreless sixth, keeping Chico State within three runs heading into its final at-bat.
The ‘Cats made things interesting in the top of the seventh, getting the potential tying run to the plate with two outs. But Taylor grounded out to short to end it, and Dixie State stayed alive with a 5-2 to force a third and deciding game.
Gilham was back in the pitcher’s circle for the ‘Cats in Friday’s second game, and in the top of the second inning Dixie State parlayed a leadoff double into the first run of the contest. An RBI single by Bailey Gaffin in the top of the third stretched the Trailblazers’ lead to 2-0.
Chico State needed an offensive spark, and they got it from an unlikely source. Breanna Martin, in the game as an injury replacement for Kristin Worley, led off the bottom of the third inning with a home run over the left field fence. It was only the seventh hit of the year for the freshman outfielder, but it cut Dixie State’s lead in half and fired up the entire Wildcat team.
Wayne led off the Chico State fourth with an opposite-field homer to right. Her ninth big fly of the year tied the contest at two-apiece, but in the top of the fifth Dixie State went back in front 3-2 when Bassett scored from third on a Gilham wild pitch.
Chico State took its first lead of the entire day in the bottom of the fifth. With Taylor aboard, Skowrup crushed a ball that hugged the left field line and sailed just inside the foul pole. The two-run blast – Skowrup’s 14th of the year, tying her with teammate Bailey Akins for the most home runs by any Wildcat in a single season—put the ‘Cats on top 4-3.
Gilham worked around a leadoff hit by pitch to twirl a scoreless sixth inning, leaving Chico State just three outs away from the West Super Regional crown. Dixie State refused to fold, putting the potential tying and go-ahead runs aboard with two outs in the seventh. Gilham promptly snuffed out any chance of a Trailblazers late-inning rally, striking out Kori Gahn to end the game, giving Chico State the 4-3 win and the right to continue the team’s quest of a Division II national championship.
Gilham threw 12 innings over the two Friday contests, and ended the day with a season record of 31-3.
Chico State, ranked No. 2 in the nation, will represent the West in the eight-team, double-elimination NCAA Championship Finals, taking place May 24-28 at the James I. Moyer complex in Salem, Virginia. Exact game times and Chico State’s first round opponent on Thursday will be announced this weekend.