LOUISVILLE, Ky. -
The No. 24 UC San Diego softball team erupted for six runs in its first at-bat before surviving a feverish seventh-inning rally by No. 1 Valdosta State, as the Tritons topped the Blazers, 7-5, in their opening game of the NCAA Division II Championship on Wednesday afternoon at Knights Field.
UCSD (42-21) advances in Bracket 1 to face No. 3 Kutztown (51-5) on Thursday at noon PDT. The winner of UCSD-Kutztown advances to the Bracket 1 title game.
Kutztown defeated No. 16 Augustana (SD) 4-0 in its opening game. VSU will play Augustana in an elimination game on Thursday.
"It feels great to start this tournament with a win. Valdosta is an absolutely fantastic team. We weren't sure what to expect, but as we saw at the end, it shows what type of team they are," said UCSD head coach Patti Gerckens.
Trailing by five in the top of the seventh, VSU's Morgan Johnson cracked a two-run home run to left field with no one out to pull within 7-4. After another Blazer single and a dropped fly ball by the Tritons, VSU put runners on first and second, still with no out. Natalia Morozova singled up the middle to score Samantha Posey and make it 7-5.
VSU moved the runners over to second and third on Ashley Steinhilber's sacrifice bunt, but UCSD starter Camille Gaito (30-10) forced pinch-hitter Sarah Vaughn to pop out before fanning Clare Wamsley on three straight pitches to end the ball game.
"I just needed to stay calm and pick my battles. Like after giving up the home run, I just needed to remember that we had the lead, focus on the next batter and know that my defense would make the plays," said Gaito.
Gaito, who was named NFCA All-America Second Team earlier in the day, gave up three hits and a pair of unearned runs prior to VSU's seventh-inning rally. She finished with six strikeouts and four walks while limiting the Blazers to seven hits.
UCSD jumped on VSU in the bottom of the first with a two-out rally, ignited by Mya Romero's RBI single through the left side. UCSD loaded the bases on a walk to Maria Sykes and were given new life when the VSU catcher dropped Nicole Spangler's pop-fly behind home plate.
Spangler responded with a two-run double into the left field corner to score Romero and Charly Swanberg, making it 3-0. Freshman Monique Portugal put an exclamation point on the rally, pounding Alanna Hadley's (20-4) third delivery over the left field wall for a three-run homer, her second of the NCAA Tournament.
"Hitting is contagious," said Portugal. "I just came up planning to get a base hit and it turned out to be a bit more."
Portugal went 2-for-3 in the game, adding a single in the sixth. Kris Lesovsky was also 2-for-3 with a pair of runs, a walk and a stolen base. Lesovsky's pair of singles gave her 79 hits this season, breaking Amy Mettee's 10-year-old single-season school record of 78.
She tied the record in the bottom of the second with a single up the middle before moving over to second on a ground out by Kirsten Willmon. Lesovsky took third on an illegal pitch to Swanberg. After a walk to Swanberg, Lesovsky scored to make it 7-0 due to another illegal pitch by Hadley, this time to Mya Romero.
Hadley, an NFCA All-America First Team selection, surrendered five walks and four hits, but just a pair of earned runs in two innings of work. Courtney Gunby pitched the final four innings, giving up three hits and no runs for the Blazers.
VSU got on the board in the top of the third as Johnson scored on an error by Portugal along the right side before Morozova doubled-in Marti Littlefield to make it 7-2. Both of the runs were unearned.
"We're going to go out there tomorrow and play much better defense. Hopefully, our offense is going to stay where it was at today, or even get a little better," said Gerckens. "I'm looking forward to playing Kutztown. Obviously, every team we play is going to be good, so we've got to be up for them."
Kutztown has won five of its last six games. The Tritons and Golden Bears have never met.
UCSD will be the visitors and bat first.