GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Every athletic season — even the record-setting ones — eventually come to an end.
Unfortunately, for the University of Rio Grande softball team, the most prolific campaign in the program’s history ended one victory shy of a trip to the NAIA World Series.
Eighth-ranked Davenport (Mich.) University spotted the RedStorm a pair of early leads before rallying to post a 5-3 win in the championship first final and a 4-2 triumph in the winner-take-all second final of the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round’s Grand Rapids Bracket at the Farmer’s Insurance Athletic Complex.
The top-seeded and host Panthers improved to 47-8 with the two wins, while also earning a berth in the NAIA Softball World Series beginning May 28 in Clermont, Fla.
Rio Grande, ranked No. 17 and seeded second in the four-team, double-elimination bracket, lost consecutive games for the first time all season and finished at 47-10. The 47 wins represented a single-season school record.
“Our kids played hard — very hard — from start to finish,” said Rio head coach Chris Hammond. “We put two runs on them quick, in both games, but then you see the kind of team that Davenport has. You knew they were going to come back and score. From top to bottom, they had as good of a batting order that we faced all season and they play with a lot of confidence. You just have to tip your hat to them. They did what they needed to do to win.”
The RedStorm, who knocked off the Panthers, 3-2, in Tuesday’s winner’s bracket final to earn a spot in the title game, jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning of game one thanks to a bases loaded, two-out single by sophomore MacKenzie Nichols (Columbus, OH).
Davenport tied the game in the bottom of the inning, though, after consecutive singles by Lauren French and Lindsay Tasma and a two-run double Alexa Flores.
That’s how things stayed until the home fourth when an RBI double by French gave the Panthers a 3-2 lead. The advantage grew to 5-2 with unearned runs in both the fifth and sixth innings, but the RedStorm made things interesting in their final at bat.
Junior Gabby Gregg (Ashville, OH) led off with a walk, but was forced out at second on freshman Michaela Criner’s (Lancaster, OH) fielder’s choice grounder to third. Criner was then forced out on a fielder’s choice grounder to second by senior Alex Stevens (Oak Hill, OH), but sophomore Carly Skeese (Newark, OH) followed with a single and junior Tayler Arndt (Clyde, OH) drew a walk to load the bases.
Sophomore Kelsey Conkey (Minford, OH) narrowly missed a pair of would-be go-ahead grand slam home runs before drawing a walk which forced home Stevens to make it 5-3.
The rally — and the game — ended moments later, though, when Nichols bounced out to third.
Skeese finished 2-for-3 in the loss for Rio.
Conkey suffered just her second loss in 24 decisions, allowing 10 hits and four runs — three earned — over 4-2/3 innings. Both of Conkey’s losses came at the hands of the Panthers.
Mallory Teunissen improved to 24-4 with the win for DU, surviving six hits and five walks in a complete game effort.
Flores finished 3-for-4 for the Panthers, while French, Haley Obetts and Kennedy Crawford all had two hits each in the win.
Game two also saw Rio grab a 2-0 first inning advantage thanks to a two-run home run by Conkey — her team-leading 14th home run of the year.
Davenport grabbed the lead in the top of the third on a two-run single by Flores and an RBI hit by Alyssa Eastman and extended its cushion to 4-2 in the sixth on an RBI groundout by Briana Allen.
DU starter Emily Maves gave up hits to two of the first three batters in the second inning, but then allowed only one baserunner — a one-out walk to Criner in the fifth — until the seventh.
Senior Cheyenne Hamaker (Hilliard, OH) was hit by a pitch to begin the inning, but was doubled-up on a line out to shortstop by Gregg. Senior Brittany Walk (Unionville Center, OH) coaxed a walk to keep the inning alive and bring the would-be tying run to the plate, but Maves induced Criner into a game-ending groundout back to the circle.
“We were going to fight to the end, there was never any question about that,” said Hammond. “It’s a game of feet and inches. We had a grand slam home run in the first game that probably missed by five feet. If we get that, we’re going into the bottom of the seventh with at least a one-run lead. Then we get the leadoff runner on in the last inning of the second game and follow that up with a hard hit ball that, if its a little higher or a little bit to the left or right, we’ve got runners at first and second with nobody out and who knows what happens then? These girls never gave up, it just didn’t happen for us.”
Skeese had a double in a losing cause for the RedStorm, while senior Jenna Jones (Lancaster, OH) started and suffered her fifth loss in 18 decisions.
Maves improved to 19-4 with the complete game effort for Davenport.
Flores, Eastman and Crawford all had two hits each to account for the Panthers’ entire game total. Crawford and Eastman both had a double.
The losses marked the final games in the collegiate careers of Stevens, Hamaker, Gregg, Walk, Jones, Arndt and the senior trio of Kari Jenkins (Jackson, OH), Tiffany Bise (Circleville, OH) and Courtney Walk (Unionville Center, OH).
“I’m so proud of our girls. You couldn’t ask for a harder-working group and they never quit,” Hammond said. “The nine kids who are leaving us were part of the most successful four-year period that the program has ever had. Yes, we’re disappointed that we’re not going to the World Series, but I couldn’t ask for a better team to coach than the one I had this season.”
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.