– Making just its second national postseason appearance in the NCAA Division I era, the Stephen F. Austin softball team's 2018 season came to an end Thursday afternoon in the first elimination game of the 2018 Postseason National Invitational Softball Championship (NISC) Region 4 at Farris Field in Conway, Arkansas. The Ladyjacks (31-24) were defeated 6-3 by regional host Central Arkansas after the Bears (28-26) scored five runs in the top of the seventh inning.
SFA took a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning and did not relinquish its advantage until the final inning when UCA got a two-out grand slam from pinch hitter Cylla Hill. Both the Ladyjacks and the Bears lined eight hits in the contest with SFA scoring in the third and fourth innings.
"Obviously, it's not the way we wanted to finish," head coach Nicole Dickson said following the loss. "We played fantastic 13 out of 14 innings in national postseason play. We're thankful for the opportunity and I really hope my younger players use this experience to build off of and go for it next year. What our seniors have done for our program this season is awesome. They're a class act and I'm really proud of their leadership."
"It was one bad inning today," coach Dickson continued. "One bad inning against a good program. UCA is a very competitive program and I fell like we have been very even with them all year. It was a great game, I wish we would've came out on top but this program has come leaps and bounds this year. We're really proud of our players and we're just looking to build off of it and get better next year."
The Ladyjacks took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third inning after excellent defensive plays by SFA's infield held UCA scoreless in the top of the frame despite the Bears loading the bases with no outs. Following a back-to-back singles by senior third baseman Amber Landry and freshman shortstop Bryana Novegil, senior catcher Taylor Fraccastoro reached on a fielder's choice to load the bases before junior first baseman Margarita Corona recorded an RBI groundout to score Landry.
A big four-hit fourth inning produced two more runs for the Ladyjacks, beginning with a two-out single to right center field from senior right-handed pitcher Callee Guffey. Guffey's single was the first of four-straight two-out hits for SFA as senior second baseman Madison Selman singled through the left side before Landry doubled to right center field for two RBI, scoring both Guffey and Selman. However, the two fourth-inning runs would prove to be the final scores for the Ladyjacks of the 2018 season.
A scoreless fifth inning preceded a one-run top sixth inning by UCA. After a walk and hit by pitch, the Bears' catcher Ryan McTaggart singled to center field with two outs for an RBI to give UCA its first score of the afternoon. Three SFA batters were retired in order in the bottom of the sixth before the Bears scored five runs on three hits in the seventh.
Senior right-handed pitcher Makayla Sikes entered the circle for the Ladyjacks to begin the seventh in search of her fifth save of the season but walked a trio of batters before Guffey returned to the rubber. UCA second baseman Libby Morris flied out to center field for a sacrifice RBI, making it a 3-2 game with just one out. The fourth walk of the inning loaded the bases once again for the Bears before a foul out back to Fraccastoro gave UCA just one out to work with. Pinch hitter Hill stepped up to the plate and took a 2-2 pitch over the left field fence for four RBI, her grand slam giving the Bears their first lead of the game at 6-3. UCA would get two more singles in the frame before a fly out finally ended the top of the seventh.
Landry led off the bottom of the final inning with a hit by pitch but a double play by the Bears' defense and then a strikeout ended the contest.
Landry led SFA at the plate with a 2-for-3, two RBI and one run scored performance, while Novegil went 2-for-4. Guffey and Selman were both 1-for-3 with a run scored. Guffey (9-10) took the loss after tossing four complete innings and striking out one. Freshman right-hander Autumn Anderson got the starting nod in the circle and threw three innings, allowing just two hits and notching a strikeout.
McTaggart registered a 3-for-4, one RBI performance to lead UCA as left fielder Reagan Sperling went 2-for-4 at the plate and first baseman Kaylyn Shepherd 1-for-1 with a run scored and three walks. Right-handed pitcher Maddie Prough (3-3) collected the win in the circle after tossing three and 1/3 innings in relief and striking out two. Righty starter Rio Sanchez went three and 2/3 innings deep, giving up five hits and walking one with no strikeouts.
The 2018 season for the Ladyjacks was a successful one as SFA claimed the most victories in the past decade, reaching the 30-win plateau for just the sixth time in its NCAA Division I history. Claiming seven Southland series wins and finishing the regular season in a three-way tie for second place in the 12-team league with an 18-9 conference record, the Ladyjacks achieved one of the largest turnarounds in all of NCAA Division I softball. SFA went 17-33 overall in 2017 and placed ninth in the Southland, before nearly doubling its win total this spring and earning the most league victories in a single season since 2010. Making their ninth Southland Tournament appearance, the Ladyjacks earned the No. 2 seed at the conference's championship event before receiving the Southland's automatic berth into the 2018 Postseason NISC.