LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Bailey Cantrell hit a two-out grand slam home run to cap a five-run first inning uprising and lift Milligan (Tenn.) University past the University of Rio Grande, 6-3, in the championship game of the Lawrenceville Bracket of the NAIA Softball National Championship, Wednesday afternoon, at Georgia Gwinnett College’s Grizzly Softball Complex.
Milligan, which was seeded third in the four-team double-elimination bracket, improved to 32-7 with the victory and advanced to next week’s NAIA World Series in Columbus, Ga. for the first time in school history.
Rio Grande, the No. 2 seed, finished its season at 47-16 with the loss. It also marked the third time under the national tournament’s current format that head coach Chris Hammond’s squad fell in the title game of the Opening Round bracket.
The 47 wins equaled a single-season school record set in 2017.
The RedStorm, who were shutout in their tourney opener by the Buffaloes on Monday afternoon, drew first blood in Wednesday’s rematch when junior Shelby Schmitt (Fairfield, OH) doubled with one out in the top of the first inning and rode home moments later when junior Taylor Webb’s grounder to third was error.
But Milligan mounted a two-out rally in the bottom of the frame which, essentially, decided the final outcome.
Katie Cronin reached on a one-out error and, one out later, stole second base. April Alvarado kept the inning alive by drawing a walk and Kate Pendleton followed with a bloop single along the left field line to tie the game at 1-1.
Neelee Griffith followed with a single to left which loaded the bases and set the stage for Cantrell, who hit a 3-2 pitch from Rio freshman starter Sydney Campolo (New Lexington, OH) just inside the left field foul pole for a grand slam and a 5-1 Buffaloes’ lead.
It was Cantrell’s first home run of the season.
From there, it was Milligan starting pitcher Erin Forgety who stole the show.
The right-hander, who blanked the RedStorm on Monday, scattered three hits over the next five innings before leaving after issuing a walk to senior Morgan Santos (Dayton, OH) and a single to junior Zoe Doll (Minford, OH) to begin the seventh and final inning.
Forgety was then lifted in favor of Chloe-Anna Merritt, who promptly surrendered a sacrifice fly to freshman Lexi Carnahan (Felicity, OH), which scored Santos from third and made it 6-2.
A single by freshman Cierra Clark (Plain City, OH) moved to Doll to second and, one out later, a single to center by Schmitt sliced the deficit to 6-3.
Webb was then intentionally walked to load the bases and bring up junior Kenzie Cremeens (Ironton, OH) representing the go-ahead run, but the rally, the game and the season ended moments later when Schmitt was forced out on a fielder’s choice grounder to third.
Pendleton and Merritt had two hits each for Milligan, while Grace Jones added a double to the winning effort.
Forgety, who won for the 13th time in 17 decisions, also had eight strikeouts.
Schmitt, Webb and Doll all had two hits in a losing cause. Webb’s hit total also included her fifth double of the tournament.
Webb, who went 9-for-14 in Rio’s four tournament outings, finished the season ranked first nationally in hits (95), second in runs batted in (70) and total bases (161) and third in doubles (25).
Campolo (20-8) suffered the loss, allowing seven hits and six runs — only one of which was earned — over 3-1/3 innings. She walked one and struck out four.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.