Lady Tops clinch Sun Belt tourney berth with Saturday wins

Nick Bratcher

After a season plagued by inconsistency, everything fell into place for the Lady Toppers Saturday in a home doubleheader against Middle Tennessee.

WKU (29-27, 9-15 Sun Belt Conference) needed at least one win to clinch a spot in the upcoming Sun Belt Conference Tournament and grabbed it through a combination of clutch pitching, clutch hitting and a little bit of good fortune.

Then the Lady Toppers grabbed a second win to secure a No. 7 seed in the tournament, avoiding first-place Louisiana-Lafayette in the first round.

The Sun Belt tournament runs next Wednesday through Saturday at ULL, and WKU will now play second-seeded Florida Atlantic in the first round.

Head Coach Tyra Perry said the team came through Saturday when it counted.

“We did what we had to do to win the game,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty. We made a lot of mistakes, which we always do, but this time we came out on top.”

The Lady Toppers defeated MTSU, 5-4, in eight innings in their first game.

Junior pitcher Dana Nathanson (3-3) earned the win after relieving sophomore Kim Wagner, escaping with just one run on six hits in five innings of work.

Nathanson relieved Wagner in the third inning after the latter allowed three runs in the first inning and got into a jam with runners on second base and third base with no outs.

Nathanson proved extremely effective when backed into a corner, getting out of that third-inning jam by pitching three straight outs and escaping two separate bases-loaded situations with no runs scored.

She said she felt confident going into the situation because she has held the reliever role all season.

“In practice, we go over those scenarios over and over again,” Nathanson said. “As a pitcher you have to be calm, cool and collected. If I pitch the ball where they’re going to hit it, my teammates are going to back me up and get the outs.”

But pitching wasn’t the only thing that picked up after the third inning.

Down 4-0 after Wagner’s unsuccessful first inning and an unearned run under Nathanson’s watch, the Lady Toppers came storming back with three runs in the sixth inning.

Junior pinch hitter Laura Smith led the effort with a timely two-RBI single down the first-base line to shrink the MTSU lead, 4-3.

Then freshman second baseman Kelsie Mattox hit a leadoff, game-tying solo home run in the seventh inning, bringing fans at the WKU Softball Complex to their feet to rally around WKU’s effort to reach the postseason.

Mattox said she fully embraced the pressure-filled situation.

“I wanted to get ahead and keep the game going,” she said. “As a softball player you live for that. If you don’t, you’re not a real player.”

The eighth inning brought the Lady Toppers their final component in the win — good fortune.

Junior third baseman Amanda Walden and senior right fielder Brittany Perry both singled to reach first and second base with one out.

Then the Blue Raiders decided to intentionally walk sophomore left fielder Ciara Garcia, opting to face center fielder Katrina Metoyer with the bases loaded instead of runners on first and second with just one out.

The move did open up home plate as a destination for an out, but consequently made it the only destination if the Blue Raiders couldn’t turn a double play.

The decision brought Metoyer, who has a higher average than Garcia on the season, to the plate and also gave the Lady Toppers the opportunity to sacrifice fly to score the winning run.

Tyra Perry said MTSU’s decision baffled her.

“We don’t understand it, but we’re glad they did it,” she said.

WKU took advantage of this opportunity as Metoyer hit a fly ball to center field, which was bobbled and dropped as the Lady Toppers scored the winning run to take both a 5-4 win and the postseason berth.

But the Lady Toppers didn’t stop changing their postseason outlook after the first game.

WKU notched three runs in the very first inning of its second game against MTSU as Mattox hit an RBI double, and freshman first baseman Sara Johnson hit a two-run home run to give the Lady Toppers an early lead, 3-0.

MTSU responded with a run in the second inning as Kelsey Dortch homered to center field but ultimately fell short as the Blue Raiders failed to catch up from that first inning, and WKU won, 4-1.

Mattox said the second win may have been more important than the first because the Lady Toppers now avoid a first-round matchup with No. 24 ULL, which has won the Sun Belt Conference Championship every year except one since softball’s beginning in 2000.

“You don’t want to face them,” she said. “It puts us in a good situation to get wins and be in a good position.”