WKU defeats UAB 13-4 to win 2021 Conference USA Softball Championship

Jake Moore, Sports Editor

WKU Softball defeated the no. 2 seed UAB Blazers by a score of 13-4 on Saturday to claim the 2021 Conference USA Softball Championship. It was the first time since 2015 that the Hilltoppers won the Conference USA title and the victory secured the team an automatic bid to the 2021 NCAA Softball Tournament.

“It’s just a feeling I don’t think we’re ever going to forget,” redshirt junior Kendall Smith said. “I think we’re excited to see where we go, we’re not scared of no one… I think we’re ready, I hope the other team is ready because we bring it all. We have nothing to lose here.”

“We definitely had our setbacks, some losses we didn’t expect, some injuries,” redshirt sophomore Kennedy Sullivan said after the win. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight the whole way through, we never lost sight of the goal.”

The Hilltoppers defeated UTSA in their first taste of tournament action on Wednesday but lost to North Texas on Thursday and were sent to the consolation bracket. The Hilltoppers defeated Charlotte and beat North Texas in a rematch back-to-back on Friday to earn a spot in the title game.

“We went through some adversity, some injuries, all kinds of things during the season, I think our true character and grit and resilience came out today,” head coach Amy Tudor said.

Kennedy Sullivan made her second start of the tournament in the title game but only lasted 1.1 innings before being relieved by redshirt freshman Katie Gardner.

Redshirt senior Paige Carter led off the game with an infield single and redshirt sophomore Jordan Ridge sent her to second base with a sacrifice bunt. Kennedy Sullivan hit a one-out single to give the Hilltoppers runners on the corners. Kendalll Smith then sent Carter home with a one-out single to give the Hilltoppers a 1-0 lead.

Redshirt freshman Taylor Sanders drew a four-pitch walk to load the bases but all three Hilltoppers were left stranded. The Blazers were retired in order in their first chance at the plate due to three straight pop-outs. 

Redshirt sophomore Taylor Davis led off the top of the second with an infield single which prompted UAB to relieve Woodham with junior Emily Kachel. Redshirt freshman TJ Webster then drew a no-out, four pitch walk. Paige Carter drove in Davis and Webster with a double and the Hilltoppers entered the bottom of the second up 3-0.

UAB redshirt senior Analyse Petree led off the bottom of the frame with a double to give the Blazers their first hit of the game. Blazer junior Jenna Olzsewski doubled immediately after to give UAB runners on second and third with no outs. A sacrifice pop-fly followed by a bunt allowed the Blazers to cut the lead to 3-2 and Katie Gardner came in to relieve Sullivan.

Gardner surrendered a walk to the first batter she faced and the Hilltoppers ran down a Blazer on the basepaths to end the inning. UAB began the third by relieving Kachel with sophomore Sarah Cespedes. 

Redshirt junior Maddie Bowlds got aboard with a one-out double down the right-field line in the top of the third but was left stranded. Gardner gave up a four-pitch walk to begin the bottom of the frame and redshirt junior Shelby Nunn relieved her. 

“Me and Katie [Gardner], we couldn’t get it done today,” Sullivan said. “Shelby [Nunn] was on fire yesterday and it was a really smart move to go back to her, obviously she’s been killing it.”

The Blazers then put runners on first and second with no outs after a WKU fielding error and a wild pitch advanced both runners. Nunn induced a ground-out and struck out her first batter of the day and Carter caught a pop-up in right field to end the inning with zero damage.

“We’ve been friends since we were five years old,” Smith said about Nunn. “I couldn’t imagine having a better relationship with a pitcher. I know how to get to her, I have to give her a little bit of tough love every once in a while… but I know how to calm her down.”

Taylor Davis led off the fourth with a bunt and reached second on a fielding error. TJ Webster reached first with a bunt of her own and sent Davis to third. Webster then stole second during the first pitch of Carter’s at-bat. Carter hit a sacrifice-fly to score Davis and Jordan Ridge laid down a bunt to score Webster, extending the Hilltopers’ lead to 5-2. 

Ridge stole second during Sullivan’s at-bat and was slow to get up, but stayed in the game. Sullivan singled down the left-field line to score Ridge from second, giving the Hilltoppers a 6-2 lead and prompting UAB to relieve Cespedes with redshirt senior Parker Conrad.

Kendall Smith delivered a no-doubt, two-run home run to center field, her fifth of the year, on the first pitch she saw to put the Hilltoppers up 8-2. Taylor Sanders was then hit by a pitch and redshirt freshman Brylee Hage drove her in with a double to extend the lead to 9-2.

“Our approach, from the first inning to the seventh, was just hitting your pitch, finding a way on [base],” Smith said. “My approach was just, ‘see it and hit it’. I haven’t been very successful this year and going into this tournament I was like, ‘it’s gonna come when we need it’, and it came when we needed it.”

The Blazers failed to answer WKU’s barrage in their half of the inning and were retired in order. Nunn ended the inning with her second strikeout of the day. The Hilltoppers failed to get anything going in the top of the fifth as Jordan Ridge was left stranded after a walk.

The Blazers put runners on second and third with two outs in the bottom of the fifth and a wild pitch allowed them to cut the lead to 9-3. Another run would score after a fielding error to set the score at 9-4.

Taylor Sanders hit her seventh home run of the season, her third against the Blazers, to extend WKU’s lead to 10-4 in the top of the sixth. Brylee Hage then singled and stole second during Taylor Davis’ at-bat but was left stranded. The Blazers left a runner stranded at first during their side of the inning. 

Paige Carter hit her second home run of the tournament and 13th of the season to extend WKU’s lead to 11-4. Jordan Ridge then singled and Kennedy Sullivan, not to be outdone, hit her second home run of the tournament and 13th of the season as well to tack on two more runs. The home crowd erupted.

The Blazers got aboard with a single in the final frame but were unable to rally from the 13-4 deficit. The Hilltoppers scored nine or more runs against UAB three times in four meetings this season. No other team on the Blazers’ schedule was able to put up that many runs against them.

Shelby Nunn finished the outing with five complete innings of relief work, picking up four strikeouts and allowing only two runs on three hits. Nunn had previously thrown a complete-game against no. 1 seed North Texas on Friday to send WKU to the title game.

“Honestly I think it’s the adrenaline,” Nunn said about her performance. “I think pitching throughout the season has really helped build my endurance and prepare me for situations like this.”

Nunn, a Bowling Green native, was thrilled to have been able to capture a conference title in front of her home crowd. 

“It means a lot, being able to win on home turf,” Nunn said. “Just to have a little bit of fun in Bowling Green. Who would’ve thought you could have fun in it,” the pitcher added while laughing.

Smith, Sanders, Carter and Sullivan all contributed a home run, with Carter and Sullivan turning in three-hit performances. Smith, Bowlds, Davis and Hage all had two hits apiece. The Hilltoppers combined for 17 hits in the victory, tying a season-high.

“It’s a fun day when we put that many hits up, that many home runs,” coach Tudor said. “We took a little bit of pressure off our pitching and off of our defense.”

Hage, Carter, Nunn, Smith and redshirt sophomore Princess Valencia were named to the Conference USA All-Tournament Team. Kennedy Sullivan earned tournament MVP honors. 

“It was kind of unreal and I was not expecting it at all,” Sullivan said when asked about her tournament honors. “It was awesome, I think I shed a few tears. It was great.”

The Hilltoppers will find out who they will play in the opening round of the NCAA Softball Tournament regionals on Sunday at 8 p.m. CT.

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