Special to The Times
The Cullman Times
ST GEORGE, Utah — Katie Gentle had another big afternoon at the plate with five RBIs, and Wallace State’s offense applied early pressure, scoring in all but two innings, as the Lady Lions knocked off top-seeded Butler (Kan.) CC 8-6 in a winner’s bracket game Thursday at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I national championship.
Wallace State, the tournament’s eighth seed, is three wins away from claiming its second national title. The Lady Lions advanced to play Pima (Ariz.) CC in Friday’s championship bracket semifinal at 3:30 p.m.
A day after collecting only two hits in an opening-round 2-1 victory, Wallace State (52-11) scored runs against a trio of Grizzly pitchers — and Gentle did damage against all three.
With the Lady Lions nursing a 1-0 lead in the third, Gentle clubbed a two-run homer to center field for a 3-1 advantage. She added a two-run single in the fourth and a sacrifice fly in the sixth, finishing 2 for 3 with five RBIs. The sophomore from Hartselle now has 16 homers and a team-high 71 RBIs this season.
“Katie had a bad tournament out here last year and said it wasn’t going to happen again. She’s made up her mind she’s going to have a strong tournament. (Cleanup hitter) Paige Rowland is struggling right now, so you’ve got to have players to pick each other up. Everyone is contributing, and it’s got to be a total team effort at this point in the season,” said Wallace State coach Jayne Clem, making her eighth national tournament appearance with the program. “Butler hasn’t been in a lot of pressure situations this season. I’m not going to say their competition is worse than ours, but it’s not who we play. They rely on the strikeout, so we wanted to force them to make plays. We knew good things were going to happen if we put the ball in play hard.”
The Lady Lions, who never trailed, scored multiple runs in the third, fourth and sixth innings, adding huge insurance runs in the late innings. They needed all of them after Butler rallied for two runs in the sixth and three in the seventh.
Lindsey DeFee (24-5) started for Wallace State and earned the win, pitching 6 2/3 innings and allowing six runs — five earned — on eight hits. She struck out four and walked three.
BreeAnna Blevins, a winner Wednesday against Santa Fe College, relieved DeFee in the bottom of the seventh and struck out Butler’s Ashton Atwell to pick up her first save of the season.
Wallace State used the long ball and clutch situational hitting to grab a 7-1 cushion by the sixth. Butler trimmed the lead to 7-3 before Wallace State’s Kori Benson hit a solo shot in the seventh to make it 8-3, adding to her single-season school record of 21 homers.
Butler cleanup hitter Kate James hit a three-run homer in the top of the seventh to trim Wallace State’s lead to 8-6. Ashley Malone followed with a single before Blevins closed the door by striking out Atwell.
“It was too close there at the end, but I knew those runs we added were going to be huge. We’ve told our team that when you’ve got a team down, you can’t be content. You’ve got to keep applying pressure,” said Clem, whose team handed Butler only its third loss of the season. “We knew we couldn’t quit because Butler is ranked No. 1 for a reason.”
Victoria Frith finished with a double and a pair of runs scored for Wallace State, Madeline Lee added a double, Maria Mitchell and Brittany Gillison had a single apiece, and Kreshala Mickens scored a run.
Wallace State is playing in its second straight NJCAA national tournament and fifth in six seasons. The Lady Lions have finished no worse than third during their last four trips to Utah,. They were third last season, runners-up in 2010 and 2009, and the national champions in 2008.