Special To The Times
The Cullman Times
Wallace State’s softball team made sure this year’s tournament championship march was pressure-free. The Lady Lions capped a perfect run in the Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC)/Region 22 Tournament Monday, edging Shelton State 3-2 to earn the program’s second-straight state title, sixth in seven seasons and eighth overall.
BreeAnna Blevins pitched another complete game, striking out eight and scattering five hits, freshman Laken Hancock delivered a two-run homer and Wallace State defeated the Bucs for the second time in less than 24 hours at Veteran’s Park in Alabaster.
A year ago, Wallace State was forced to win five consecutive games out of the elimination bracket in order to capture the state title. The top-seeded Lady Lions earned it much, much easier this time.
“We wanted to get four straight wins and get it over with. We were focused from the very first pitch against Enterprise State and played with a lot of emotion the entire tournament,” Wallace State sophomore shortstop Victoria Frith said. “Now, we’re focused on going to nationals and competing for another ring.”
The Lady Lions (50-11) opened their tournament surge Friday with a 12-0 shutout against Enterprise State, receiving five home runs, mainly from unlikely power sources. After games were postponed Saturday, Wallace State added a pair of victories Sunday, defeating Southern Union 8-0 and Shelton State 7-5 on a Kori Benson three-run, walk-off homer.
The Lions relied on different heroes each game, and Monday was no different. Wallace State briefly trailed 1-0 in the second inning before Hancock blasted a two-run homer, giving the Lady Lions a 2-1 lead. It was Hancock’s fourth homer of the season and third in the tournament. Wallace State extended the lead to 3-1 on a fourth-inning sacrifice fly by Brittany Gillison.
Maria Mitchell had a pair of hits, including a double, and scored two runs in the win. Libby Olinger added a double.
Blevins (24-5) took care of the rest on the mound, throwing her 25th complete game this season. She pitched around a pair of solo homers to win her third game of the tournament.
Blevins and fellow starting pitcher Lindsey DeFee each earned All-Tournament Team recognition, while the Wallace State offense hit 11 home runs over four games, increasing its single-season team record to 67 long balls.
“This tournament shows that it’s not just one person doing damage for us. It’s somebody new every game, whether they’re a freshman or a sophomore. Our pitchers have done an awesome job this year, and it seems a different hitter comes up with a clutch hit each game. That’s the mark of a championship team. Each person knows a teammate has their back,” said Wallace State coach Jayne Clem, who was named ACCC Coach of the Year for the 11th time. “Our girls were on a mission from the beginning. We had some ups and downs during the regular season and let our guard down at times, but when it was all said and done, they knew what they had to do.”
Benson, an Oak Grove graduate, was named tournament MVP after finishing with three homers and seven RBIs. She blasted a two-run homer against Southern Union and added a pair against Shelton State, including Sunday’s walk-off bomb.
“All of this is unreal. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing softball. I didn’t have a chance to win a state tournament in high school,” said Benson, whose 20 home runs are a new single-season school record. “I don’t think we are state champions if we didn’t learn a lot about ourselves during the regular season. We lost some games we shouldn’t have lost and knew we weren’t going to let that happen here.”
Olinger, Katie Gentle and Paige Rowland, all sophomores, were also named to the All-Tournament Team. Olinger had a homer and five RBIs over the four-game stretch, Gentle clubbed a pair of homers in the Southern Union victory, and Rowland added a homer and four RBIs.
Wallace State now advances to the NJCAA Division I national championship at St. George, Utah from May 15-18. The Lady Lions finished third in the nation last season, losing to eventual champ Chattanooga (Tenn.) State. Wallace State has finished no worse than third during its last four trips to the national tournament, winning the title in 2008 and finishing runner-up in 2009 and 2010.
“Our sophomores have told the freshmen what to expect in Utah. Our girls are ready and have been paying attention all season to who’s winning across the country. If we keep our minds focused, I think we can go and win it,” Clem said.