WKU’s season comes to an end after 12-inning bout with Duke

Jake Moore, Sports Editor

ATHENS, Georgia – The Hilltoppers’ 2021 season came to a close on Saturday with a 12-inning, 4-0 loss against no. 13 seed Duke (44-11), (26-10, ACC) in the consolation bracket of the Athens Regional at Jack Turner Stadium. It was the longest game the Hilltoppers had played in terms of innings since May 10, 2017.

WKU (32-15), (10-6, C-USA) had defeated the UNC Greensboro Spartans (34-17), (14-4, SOCON) earlier in the day by a score of 8-4 to advance to play the Blue Devils for a shot in the regional title game.

“I was proud of our response after yesterday,” head coach Amy Tudor said after the loss. “I felt like Katie Gardner threw fantastic and so did Shelby Nunn, I felt like they were pretty dominant in the circle… I feel like we were exciting. We were ready to play and obviously it didn’t end the way we wanted it to but I think we showed what we can do on the softball field.”

“It kind of sucks going that long and not getting the outcome that we wanted,” redshirt freshman Taylor Sanders said after the game with Duke. “We played hard and gave all we had… We held our own with an ACC champion so I mean, we can hold our own against anyone.”

Game 1: WKU 8, UNCG 4

Redshirt junior Shelby Nunn started against UNC Greensboro, fresh off of a 5.1 inning relief appearance against Georgia on Friday. The righty put together 4.2 innings of work before being relieved, striking out three Spartans and allowing three hits, three walks and four runs. 

Redshirt sophomore Kennedy Sullivan continued her strong weekend at the plate, going 2-for-3 with a home run and three RBI. Taylor Sanders tacked on a home run of her own and fellow redshirt freshman Brylee Hage contributed a single, a double and three RBI as well. Seven members of the lineup contributed at least one hit.

“A lot of the younger players showed up at this tournament and did a lot of great things,” Tudor said about her younger players’ success. “You get your feet wet, you get to feel what its like with an NCAA tournament, no one had been before on this team so it’s an experience that they can be proud of and it’s an experience that we can build on for the future.”

Nunn picked up back-to-back strikeouts to close the top of the first, only needing eight pitches to get through the inning. Redshirt senior Paige Carter led off the bottom of the frame with her 19th double of the year and Kennedy Sullivan hit her 14th home run of the year to drive her home and give the Hilltoppers a 2-0 lead.

The Hilltoppers weren’t finished with the long ball, as Taylor Sanders hit her eighth home run of the year to score Brylee Hage and extend the lead to 4-0. Nunn returned to the circle in the top of the second with a four-run lead.

Nunn surrendered a walk in the top of the second, but the Spartans left a runner stranded. Redshirt freshman TJ Webster singled to lead off the back half of the second and then promptly stole second base. Paige Carter drew a walk to give WKU a pair of baserunners but Webster was picked off at third to end the inning.

Nunn threw another eight-pitch inning in the top of the third, striking out her third batter and retiring the Spartans in order. The Hilltoppers followed UNCG’s lead in the bottom of the inning. UNCG sophomore Maycin Brown supplied the Spartans’ first hit of the game with a lead-off double in the top of the fourth but was not able to score.

Redshirt junior Maddie Bowlds singled in the bottom of the fourth and Paige Carter drew a two-out walk to give WKU a pair of baserunners. Redshirt sophomore Princess Valencia reached first due to an error on a fielder’s choice to load the bases with two outs. 

Kennedy Sullivan hit an RBI single to score Bowlds and Brylee Hage hit a bases-clearing double to put the Hilltoppers up 8-0 and threaten a run-rule victory. Nunn surrendered a pair of one-out walks in the top of the fifth and an RBI single gave the Spartans their first run of the game.

Maycin Brown hit a two-out, three-run home run, her second extra-base hit of the day, to cut WKU’s lead to just 8-4. Redshirt freshman Katie Garder was then sent in to relieve Nunn, who struck out the first batter she faced to end the frame.

WKU was retired in order in the top half of the fifth and the Spartans followed in the top of the sixth on just 10 pitches from Gardner. The Hilltoppers had nothing to show for in the bottom of the sixth as well.

Gardner induced three straight outs to eliminate the Spartans and secure WKU’s first NCAA tournament victory since May 16, 2015. Gardner pitched 2.1 perfect innings of relief to lock up the win, which was WKU’s third NCAA tournament win under head coach Amy Tudor, a program record.

Game 2: Duke 4, WKU 0 [12]

Gardner was given the start against the Blue Devils fresh off of her relief appearance. The freshman compiled seven innings of scoreless work while allowing just three hits before being relieved by Shelby Nunn in the eighth inning.

“I felt that Katie had great command of her pitches,” Tudor said. “She was confident, her velo[city] was up, I feel like she was the hand to go with and I thought she did a great job against both teams.”

“Just locating my pitches was really big,” Gardner said when asked about her lights-out performance. “Their coach was trying to pick what I was throwing so I just knew I had to keep my changeup low and just let my spin work.”

Duke junior Shelby Walters threw a 130-pitch, 12-inning complete-game shutout with five strikeouts, holding the Hilltoppers to just five hits.

“Hats off to their pitcher,” Tudor said. “She’s a phenomenal pitcher, she’s had a great year in the ACC.”

Taylor Sanders provided most of the offense for WKU, going 3-for-5 at the plate.

“Taylor Sanders had a day at the plate, going three for five,” Tudor said. “A big day for the freshmen, thought she did a good job.”

The Blue Devils hit three grounders to Gardner in a row in the top of the first to be retired in order. WKU was retired in order in the bottom of the inning as well and both teams entered the second inning hitless.

Duke left runners stranded on the corners in the top of the second. Taylor Sanders singled for WKU’s first hit of the game but the Hilltoppers failed to score. The Blue Devils left another runner stranded at first in the top of the third after a heads-up defensive play by redshirt sophomore second baseman Jordan Ridge. 

Maddie Bowlds led off the bottom of the third with a single and TJ Webster grounded out to send her to second. Paige Carter then reached first on an error and Bowlds advanced to third. Redshirt sophomore Taylor Davis grounded out to put both runners in scoring position and Kennedy Sullivan loaded the bases with a walk. A ground-out sent the Hilltoppers back to the field scoreless. 

Both sides were retired in order in the fourth, making for a very quick inning. The Blue Devils broke through with a single but failed to score in the top of the fifth. The Hilltoppers were retired in order during their half of the inning on just five pitches.

Gardner retired the Blue Devils in order with just eight pitches in the top of the sixth, with the second out coming from a diving head-first catch from Taylor Davis in left field.

“It makes me a lot more confident knowing that I have eight other people behind me that can make those plays,” Gardner said when asked about the Hilltoppers’ defensive performance. “I’m very glad that they’re behind me.”

Kennedy Sullivan broke through with a one-out single in the bottom of the sixth. Brylee Hage then reached first on an error that gave WKU runners on first and second but both runners were left on base. 

Duke put runners on first and second with two outs in the top of the seventh thanks to a pair of walks but both were left on base. TJ Webster reached first with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, but was left stranded on a ground-out to send the game into extra innings. Shelby Nunn relieved Gardner to begin the eighth.

Nunn only needed eight pitches to complete the frame, ending it with a three-pitch strikeout. The Hilltoppers failed to produce a baserunner in their half of the inning. Nunn induced three ground-outs in a row to send Duke back to the field in the top of the ninth. 

Taylor Sanders led off the bottom of the ninth with a single and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Princess Valencia grounded out to send Sanders to third with two outs but she would be left on base. The Blue Devils went down in order in the bottom of the 10th, completing three perfect innings from Nunn. Three groundouts in a row sent the Hilltoppers back to the field in the 11th.

Duke managed to put runners on second and third in the top of the 11th and both ended up stranded. Taylor Sanders broke through for a two-out single in the bottom of the inning but was left on base as well.

The Hilltoppers entered a 12th inning for the first time since May 10, 2017. A single and a fielding error put Duke runners at first and second with one out and a bunt from Duke junior Kyla Morris paired with a throwing error allowed two runs to score, giving the Blue Devils a 2-0 lead.

Duke sophomore Gisele Tapia drove in another run with a ground-out and junior Deja Davis extended Duke’s lead to 4-0 after scoring from third on a passed ball.

The Hilltoppers entered the bottom of the inning looking to keep their season alive but were retired in order to end the year.

Coach Tudor expressed pride in her roster after the game, noting that her team was faced with adversity throughout the season but took it head-0n without missing a beat.

“We lost so many players to injury, we had so many different players step up,” Tudor said. “When we were down they respond the very next day. That’s something that you can only hope for as a coach and they did a good job of that throughout the entire season.”

Tudor was also glad that her pair of redshirt seniors, Paige Carter and Kelsey Aikey, were able to experience a conference title and NCAA tournament during the duo’s last year with the program.

“We obviously lose Paige and Aikey due to their fifth-year graduation, but we’re very thankful for what they’ve done for our program,” Tudor said. “[They’ve] had great successes here and they get to leave with a conference title and a win in an NCAA [tournament] game.”

The Hilltoppers’ season may be over, but the team is already anticipating returning to the dirt and is hungry to compete for wins in 2022.

“That’s what coach Dani [Pugh] said to us in our meeting,” Gardner said. “Come back hungry next year. I think that we’re sort of a young team so I feel like we’ll just continue to carry this on.”

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