May 2, 2003
The University of Notre Dame softball team (32-14, 13-2) has seen this scenario before. Villanova (31-12, 12-6) had come calling to Ivy Field last in the season just a year ago to decide the BIG EAST Conference regular-season crown. Notre Dame sent the Wildcats back to Philadelphia with two identical 9-1 losses. In 2003, however, it was Villanova’s turn. The Wildcats jumped all over Notre Dame pitching in game one to go ahead 7-1, then hold on for a 7-6 victory to keep themselves in the running for the regular-season crown. The Irish recovered to take game two 3-0 behind a resurgent pitching performance by Steffany Stenglein and Heather Booth.
With the BIG EAST Conference’s strange point-based standings, it takes a protractor, ruler, compass and calculator to figure out just who will make the BIG EAST Championship next weekend in Salem, Va. One thing is for sure, however, that the Irish will be in the championship field. After analyzing the standings and worse-case scenarios, the Irish hold enough tie breakers over the other possible teams who could qualify for the top four positions that they have indeed insured a spot in the conference tournament.
Villanova’s game one victory temporarily tied the Wildcats and the Irish for first place in the league standings with 24 points, although the Notre Dame conference record stood at 12-2 while Villanova was 12-5. The game two outcome put the Irish back in first place, at least until Saturday night (when the results of the other conference action is accounted for).
The Wildcats came into game one ready to hit the ball and immediately put two runs on the board in the top of the first. Ricci Lugo led off with a double and scored on a Sara Carlson single, then Robin Flier scored on another RBI single from Kari Koller.
Two more Villanova runs came in the top of the third when Koller smashed a two-run home run to leftfield. The Wildcats continued to pour it on in the top of the fourth with two more runs, coming on a Lisa Krueger RBI single and a fielder’s choice ground out by Carlson.
Notre Dame finally answered with a run in the bottom of the fourth when Lisa Mattison doubled to centerfield. Pinch runner Kellie Middleton eventually scored on a Liz Hartmann double.
Not to be outdone, Villanova tacked on yet another run in the fifth on two consecutive hits, followed by a Flier single to centerfield off relief pitcher Carrie Wisen.
The seventh run must have finally woke the Irish offense up, because they came back with four runs in the bottom of the inning with two outs. Andria Bledsoe singled and stole second base, eventually scoring when Lisa Mattison reached on a fielding error . After Meagan Ruthrauff walked, Liz Hartmann stepped in and drilled a three-run home run to straight centerfield to thrust Notre Dame right back into the game.
Stenglein entered game on in relief during the sixth inning and worked a four-pitch half to get the Irish bats right back in the box. With one out, Megan Ciolli singled and eventually advanced to third on an Alexis Madrid ground out. Andrea Loman, who struggled at the plate the whole day, could not get the runner home, however, and popped up to end the inning.
Another uneventful inning was worked by Stenglein in the seventh to put Notre Dame back on offense. Bledsoe led off with a single and moved to second on a Mattison ground out. Villanova brought in their third relief pitcher, Shannon Williams and Bledsoe advanced to third on a wild pitch. Ruthrauff followed by reaching on a throwing error by VU’s Lugo, scoring Bledsoe to get Notre Dame within one run with just one out.
Hartmann stepped in and, after fouling straight back several pitches, eventually struck out. Mallorie Lenn then took over and sent several deep foul balls down the leftfield line, rising the crowd to their feet every time. Williams got Lenn to ground out on a change up to end the game.
With their bats finally awaken for the first time all day, Notre Dame quickly got two runs in the bottom of the first during game two. Ciolli doubled to lead off and scored on a fielder’s choice by Loman. Loman then scored when Bledsoe drilled a single up the middle.
That about sums up all the offensive fireworks from game two. Notre Dame’s bats eventually went back to sleep, while the Wildcats bats never even heard the alarm clock. Stenglein worked four more great innings to start the game, giving up just one hit and striking out two. Booth then finished off the last three innings to earn the save (as she entered with just a 2-0 lead) with three innings of one-hit softball, along with three strike outs.
After the two Irish hits in the first inning, Villanova’s Williams was equally as effective as the two Notre Dame pitchers. She kept the Irish off balance all day with a solid change up, giving up just two more hits the rest of the way and striking out three.
Notre Dame’s third run in game two came in the fifth, when Middleton struck out but reached base on a passed ball. She soon stole second and advanced to third when Ciolli reached on a slap infield hit. Ciolli then took off to steal second and Villanova’s catcher, Veronica Alvarez, sailed her throw into centerfield, allowing Middleton to score easily on the play.
The Irish have one more regular season doubleheader on Sunday, hosting Rutgers at 11 a.m.
BIG EAST Championship scenarios: Notre Dame is in first with 26 points, followed by Villanova with 24, Boston College with 22, Connecticut with 22 and Seton Hall with 20 … Connecticut and Boston College will both play against Seton Hall this weekend … if UConn and Boston College can sweep through the weekend, they can reach 30 points … if Notre Dame defeats Rutgers twice it will have 30 points … the first BIG EAST tie breaker is head to head competition … the second BIG EAST tie breaker is record against the first team in the standings, following down the standings until one team reaches and advantage … if three teams are tied, they are treated like a mini-conference, with each teams record against each other used as the tie breaker … Seton Hall could sneak into the top four this weekend as well.