Hilltoppers secure Conference USA Tournament spot

Redshirt senior Brittany Vaughn celebrates with the team during the the first game during the WKU vs. EKU doubleheader on April 11 at the softball complex. WKU defeated EKU 6-3 in the first game, but lost 8-4 in the second.

Tyler Eaton

WKU softball (27-25, 10-13 Conference USA) split its final conference series of the year this past weekend against Florida International (30-24, 14-8 C-USA).

Both games were played on Sunday due to rain on Saturday, and the win in game one clinched the Hilltoppers a spot in the C-USA tournament, placing them at eighth in the conference.

The story of game one was the performances of the pitchers for both teams. FIU starter Shannon Saile struck out 12 Hilltoppers and gave up just one run, but that one run would be enough for WKU, as sophomore pitcher Kelsey Aikey pitched a two-hit shutout for the Hilltoppers.

“For us to beat [Saile] in the circle, that’s a great day,” head coach Amy Tudor said. “I felt like Kelsey Aikey won that battle for us today, and that was a big difference for us.”

The lone run for the Hilltoppers came in the home half of the fifth inning. Junior infielder Rebekah Engelhardt led things off with a double, and junior outfielder Kelsey McGuffin delivered a two-out RBI single to score Engelhardt for what would ultimately be the winning run.

“The no-quit attitude is definitely something we’ve been challenging (the players) on,” Tudor said. “Figuring out how to get timely hits was important.”

Game two immediately appeared as though it would be different from game one, as the Hilltoppers jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead after the first inning on an RBI double from redshirt senior outfielder Brittany Vaughn.

WKU held that 1-0 lead until the fourth inning, when the Panthers jumped out on freshman pitcher Shelby Nunn for six singles resulting three runs. Nunn would be removed from the game going into the next inning after she was hit on her throwing hand by a line drive.

Haylee Towers came in in relief of Nunn, and she would give up one more run to FIU in the sixth inning. The Panthers held that lead to the end, winning game two 4-1.

The Hilltoppers will play next in the conference tournament on May 9 in Charlotte, North Carolina against fifth-seeded Marshall. If WKU wins that game, they will advance to play the fourth seed Florida Atlantic later that day.

“Once you get into the tournament, it’s anybody’s game,” Tudor said. “We’re going to be prepared and have a good game plan. It’s up in the air this year, but we’re going to give it all we’ve got.”

Reporter Tyler Eaton can be reached at 270-776-6797 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @at_eaton