WKU downs UTSA 3-2, advances to play no. 1 seed North Texas

WKU+softball+players+stand+on+the+foul+line+during+the+national+anthem+before+the+game+against+UAB+Saturday%2C+March+20%2C+2021.

Credit: WKU Athletics

WKU softball players stand on the foul line during the national anthem before the game against UAB Saturday, March 20, 2021.

Jake Moore, Sports Editor

WKU Softball defeated the UTSA Roadrunners 3-2 in a tense, back-and-forth matchup in the Hilltoppers’ first round of action in the 2021 Conference USA Softball Championship.

The no. 4 seed Hilltoppers faced UTSA after the no. 8 seed Roadrunners defeated Middle Tennessee by a score of 4-2 earlier in the day. It was the first time the two squads had seen each other all season. 

“There wasn’t anything too flashy,” head coach Amy Tudor said after the game. “A lot of times in this tournament you need to do the little things to get the win, I think our walks and stolen bases, our clutch hits, Katie [Gardner] coming in in a pressure situation and performing was huge.”

Redshirt sophomore Kennedy Sullivan was given the start in the postseason matchup. The two-way player’s last appearance resulted in a three-hit complete-game shutout against FAU on May 8. Sullivan put together three innings and notched two strikeouts before being relieved by redshirt freshman Katie Gardner in the fourth inning.

UTSA was retired in order in the top of the first due to a pair of fly outs and Sullivan’s first strikeout of the day. The Hilltoppers went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning as well.

The Roadrunners remained hitless in the second as Sullivan picked up her second strikeout. Redshirt junior Maddie Bowlds cracked a one-out double to give the Hilltoppers their first base runner of the game in the back half of the inning but was left stranded on base.

UTSA produced its first base runner of the night in the top of the third inning with a no-out double to left center field. A double play from Sullivan and redshirt sophomore Jordan Ridge would clear the bases before a hit-by-pitch put a Roadrunner at first base. A single immediately after put runners on first and second and Sullivan surrendered a walk to load the bases. 

Head coach Amy Tudor came out to the circle for a quick meeting with Sullivan and redshirt junior catcher Kendall Smith. Sullivan then induced a high fly ball to shallow left field, which redshirt freshman TJ Webster tracked down to send the Roadrunners back to the field scoreless.

TJ Webster reached first base in the bottom of the third due to a dropped third strike and stole second during redshirt senior Paige Carter’s at bat. Carter then drove Webster in with an RBI single to give the Hilltoppers a 1-0 lead. Carter would reach second on the throw to home and made it to third base on a sacrifice fly from Ridge but was left stranded.

The Hilltoppers’ lead wouldn’t last long, as UTSA senior Madison Washington led off the top of the fourth inning with a solo home run to right field to tie the game 1-1. It was the fifth run the Roadrunners had scored in the tournament, all five of those coming by way of the long ball.

Sullivan then surrendered back-to-back no-out walks and Tudor sent in redshirt freshman Katie Gardner to relieve the two-way player. A hit-by-pitch then loaded the bases for the second time in the game. Gardner struck out the first batter she faced before a sacrifice fly from UTSA freshman Erykah Guerrero gave the Roadrunners a 2-1 lead. A groundout then ended the frame.

“It’s really a great feeling knowing that [Kelsey] Aikey can’t pitch so I was thinking about doing that for her,” Gardner said about her relief performance. “Going into that inning I knew I had to somehow get us out of it, I just went pitch-by-pitch again and knew that my defense would have my back.”

Kendall Smith hit a leadoff single that slipped by two infielders in the bottom of the fourth. Redshirt sophomore Princess Valencia drove Smith to third with a one-out single and redshirt freshman Brylee Hage drove Smith home with an infield RBI single to tie the game 2-2. Redshirt freshman Taylor Sanders popped out in her first plate appearance since April 18 and TJ Webster was thrown out at first to end the inning. 

“She’s a gamer,” coach Tudor said about Sanders’ appearance. “She’s worked really hard in rehab, she’s been going to therapy, she’s playing injured now so she’s showing a lot of grit and a lot of toughness.”

Gardner picked up a pair of strikeouts in the top of the fifth to strand a Roadrunner at first and UTSA made a pitching change to start the bottom of the inning, replacing starter freshman Tatum Seith with freshman Jamie Gilbert. Jordan Ridge reached first base on a one-out, four-pitch walk and stole second two pitches later. Kennedy Sullivan then drew a walk after a 13-pitch plate appearance but a pair of pop-ups left both runners stranded.

A Roadrunner reached first after a two-out, four-pitch walk but Gardner’s fourth strikeout of the night sent the game to the bottom of the sixth. 

Princess Valencia led off the frame with an infield single and Taylor Sanders sent her to second with a single of her own. Paige Carter drew a two-out walk to load the bases and Jordan Ridge drew a walk of her own to give WKU a 3-2 lead. 

“I knew I just had to get my pitch,” Ridge said. “She [Gilbert] walked Paige Carter in the previous at bat and she walked me in my first at bat when she first came in… coach [Tudor] told me to swing at a pitch at my legs, I was just waiting for that pitch and luckily I just got walked.”

A walk and a single in the top of the seventh put the Roadrunner’s tying run on second base with one out, but Gardner tossed back-to-back strikeouts to secure the win for the Hilltoppers.

Princess Valencia contributed two hits, Jordan Ridge drew a pair of walks and Gardner gave up just one hit while collecting six strikeouts in four innings of relief work.

The Hilltoppers move on to play the no. 1 seed North Texas Mean Green at 2 p.m. on Thursday.

Sports Editor Jake Moore can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Charles_JMoore.