Special to The Times
The Cullman Times
For a team that’s a perennial contender at the NJCAA Division I softball national tournament, Wallace State had a chip on its shoulder this year in Utah, feeling all along it deserved more than the eighth seed.
The Lady Lions cashed in on their perceived slight. Wallace State, which finished 55-12, used an explosive offense, scoring seven or more runs in five wins, got strong starting pitching and mowed down top seed after top seed the entire tournament, culminating with a 7-3 win over Salt Lake City (Utah) CC in the title game.
Along the route to its title, Wallace State defeated three higher-seeded teams: No. 1 Butler (Kan.) CC, No. 2 Salt Lake twice and No. 5 Pima (Ariz.) CC.
“It was an awesome feeling to prove everyone wrong and show an Alabama team deserves to be at the top of this tournament. We’ve been out here a lot lately and still don’t get a lot of respect, but we prove it on the field,” said Wallace State coach Jayne Clem, who has led Wallace State to eight national tournament appearances. “This national championship is for all of the players who’ve played here in between the last one.”
Wallace State softball’s first national championship came in 2008, and the program had been knocking on the door for a second ever since. The Lady Lions finished runner-up in 2009 and 2010, as well as third in 2012, only missing the national tournament in 2011.
Wallace State’s offense set single-season team records this campaign before embarking on Utah and continuing to mash the ball against top-caliber pitchers once the national tournament began.
Five Lady Lions hit home runs at the tournament, increasing the single-season club record to 75. Wallace State scored 33 runs in six games and put together multiple-run innings nine times.
“We set so many records offensively this year that our pitchers knew they could relax each time out and do their jobs,” said Clem, who was named the Karen Sykes Outstanding Coach of the Year for the second time. “It was great to see us deliver with clutch hit after clutch hit against the best in the nation.”
Wallace State failed to score more than seven runs in only two tournament games. The Lady Lions won their opener 2-1 over Santa Fe (Fla.) College on a sixth-inning Katie Gentle home run and were shut out by Salt Lake to force the championship game.
“All year we’ve known each person in the lineup was capable of getting a big hit and if one person failed, the other was there to pick us up,” said sophomore catcher Paige Rowland, who had four hits in the tournament including a solo homer.
Wallace State’s big boppers, such as Rowland, Gentle and Kori Benson supplied clutch hits over the six-game stretch, but the Lady Lions also received timely contributions from Brittany Gillison, Maria Mitchell, Victoria Frith and second baseman and All-Tournament selection Madeline Lee, who compiled a team-high nine tournament hits, including a homer and three doubles. Gillison and Gentle also were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Gentle finished the season-ending tourney with a pair of homers and eight RBIs, while Benson added three homers and eight RBIs. Gentle finished the season hitting .456 with 16 homers and a single-season record of 74 RBIs. Benson’s three homers added to her school-record of 23 for a single season.
Wallace State co-aces Lindsey DeFee and BreeAnna Blevins made all of the early runs and leads stand up. Eufaula’s DeFee was named tournament MVP and the Most Outstanding Pitcher after collecting three wins in 24 2/3 innings and beating Salt Lake City on Friday and Saturday.
Blevins was 2-0 with a save in the tournament. She struck out 17 batters in 14 1/3 innings.
Both pitchers were 20-game winners this season. DeFee finished 26-5 with a 1.87 ERA, pitching 20 complete games. Blevins was 26-6 with a 1.56 ERA, tossing 27 complete games and striking out 240 hitters in 188 2/3 innings.
Wallace State’s dominant postseason began with a perfect run in the Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC) earlier this month before the Lady Lions claimed the national crown. Clem and her players agreed a rare regular season loss to Marion Military in April was the turning point of the season.
“Every team is going to have some hiccups down the road, and we learned a lesson that day. We regrouped and knew what our mission was,” Clem said. “Our players started to believe in what they could accomplish and never looked back.”
Wallace State lost only three times after the Marion game.
“I had no doubt after that day we would be sitting here as champs. We had our ups and downs, but our ultimate goal was always the same. No one was going to stop us,” Rowland said.
Added DeFee: “The Marion loss definitely changed our season. It was all about us and our focus. We never overlooked anyone after that.”
At the state tournament, Benson was named tournament MVP and Rowland, Gentle and Libby Olinger were additional All-Tournament selections.
Wallace State now has seven national championships. The softball team has two, while men’s tennis, women’s tennis, and outdoor track and field each compiled two titles before the programs were disbanded.