Fans at the John Cain Family Field were left stunned after the Texas A&M University-Commerce Lion softball team were defeated twice in one day by Cameron University in the Championship Round of the NCAA South Central Regional Tournament Saturday by scores of 13-9 and 6-5, with the second game ending in walk-off fashion.
The games were delayed four hours due to heavy rain and lightning in the area all morning.
Saturday’s games were the fourth and fifth times the Lions had faced the Aggies in the last two weeks. A&M-Commerce went 2-1 in the regular season series against Cameron.
The Lions were in the Championship Round after sweeping through the winner’s bracket with victories over Dixie State and Tarleton State, while Cameron, who were the six seed in the bracket, lost on a walk-off hit against Tarleton on day one and had to climb out of the loser’s bracket in the double-elimination tournament.
The first game began with solid pitching from both teams, but the Lions were the first to take the lead as Jodie Hill smashed an rbi double into center field in the second inning to give A&M-Commerce a 1-0 advantage. Little did they know, this would be the only lead for the Lions in the entire contest.
The Aggies broke through in the top of the third, plating five runs in the frame on A&M-Commerce pitching, which had been lights out throughout the tournament. Starter Emily Otto had gotten complete-game shutouts in her two appearances on the weekend, but was shelled heavily in the third. She was pulled from the game after only getting one out in the frame, and senior Katie Dean was called in to finish the inning. Dean allowed two runners on in the fourth before being relieved by Alexis Velasquez on the mound.
When the damage was done, Cameron had scored nine runs in two innings. A&M-Commerce clawed back with two runs in the third, but were still down by six as the game entered it’s second half.
The Aggies added two more runs in the sixth, and now led 11-3. With the game on the line, the Lions got to work mounting a comeback.
Kinsie Hebler, who had already homered in the third, launched a bomb out to left field to get the scoring started in the bottom of the sixth. Vanessa Muro followed that up with a three-run blast later in the inning, and it looked like things were turning around for A&M-Commerce.
Cameron’s Brenna Busby took some wind out of the Lions’ sails in the seventh inning with a two-run homer that inflated the lead to six runs. With their backs against the wall, A&M-Commerce tried it’s darnedest to fight back. Hebler homered again for the second time in two innings and Bri Sims also launched a solo shot, but that was all the scoring A&M-Commerce could muster as they fell 13-9.
Hebler finished her monster game with a stat line of four-for-four, three runs scored, four runs batted in and three long bombs. Sims was the only other Lion with multiple hits, going two-for-two with two rbi, two walks and a home run.
Otto was uncharacteristically pedestrian in her outing, pitching just 2.1 innings and allowing five hits and five runs while hitting a batter and only striking out one. Dean pitched just two-thirds of an inning, allowing two hits and two earned, while Velasquez had the bulk of the pitching effort, going four innings and allowing six earned runs on seven hits.
The loss sent the Championship Round to a second game between the two teams, played just 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first.
The teams switched sides for the second game, with A&M-Commerce in an unfamiliar position as the visiting team at Cain Family Field, batting in the top half of the inning.
Otto got the start once again in game two, this time allowing just one base runner through the first three innings. Her teammates rewarded her stellar pitching by giving her a lead. Sims homered in the second inning, just barely eking the ball over the centerfield wall past the outstretched glove of the outfielder.
Muro continued a good day at the plate with a two-run double in the third to extend the Lions’ lead to 3-0.
The lead was short lived, as the Aggies began to threaten in the fourth. Chelsea Slider made a brilliant diving stop on a groundball at short and fired the ball to Sims, but the bang-bang play was called in the runner’s favor and everyone was safe on what could have been the final out. This proved to be a turning point in the game, as Cameron went on to score three runs in the inning to tie the game.
The Aggies tacked on two more runs in the fifth to take a 5-3 lead and the situation began to grow dire for A&M-Commerce as time was running thin.
The Lions answered in a big way in the sixth. Singles by Slider and Ciera Nunez gave senior Kayla Kilcrease the perfect opportunity, as she snuck a ground ball past a diving second baseman for a two-rbi double to knot the game at five.
Otto put out a fire in the bottom half of the inning with two runners on, getting the final out to send the game to the seventh still tied.
The seventh inning did not start on a good note for A&M-Commerce, as Hebler worked a full count and got what she thought was a low and inside pitch and began to trot to first base. But home plate umpire John Reinhart gave a delayed strikeout call that sent the Lion faithful in attendance into a frenzy. Head Coach Richie Bruister went out to argue, but the call stood and A&M-Commerce had one less out to work with.
A single from Sims was all they could get before the inning was ended.
This gave the Aggies a prime spot to end the game in dramatic fashion. Otto got the first two batters out, which brought up Callie Busby to the plate. Busby took a 2-2 pitch deep into right centerfield, and the ball carried over the wall, giving Cameron the unique situation of a walk-off win on another team’s home field.
Sims was the only Lion with multiple hits in game two, going two-for-three with a walk and a home run. Hebler was intentionally walked twice after her three home run performance in the first game and struck out twice. Muro and Kilcrease both finished one-for-four with a pair of rbi.
Otto pitched the entire game for A&M-Commerce, ending with 6.2 innings pitched and allowing six earned runs on nine hits. She walked two and had no strikeouts.
Coach Bruister was somewhat candid in his comments following game two in a press conference, saying that while he was proud of his team, he believes that there were moments in the game where it was taken out of their hands, making a nod to his thoughts on the umpiring of the contests.
“I’m proud of our team. Some people counted us out because we lost some big guns last year,” Bruister said. “We weren’t planning on going out right now, but the cards were not in our hands. It’s unfortunate because we played well enough to win, but tonight we were playing more than just Cameron.”
Kilcrease said that she knew that the team needed a big hit when she got her opportunity to tie the game.
“I knew that we just needed that one hit with runners on base,” Kilcrease said. “Just the heart of (this team) is just amazing.”
Hebler said her strong performance came from a deep desire to keep the season alive for her senior teammates.
“It was all for the seniors, I didn’t want to go down today,” Hebler said. “It wasn’t time to go home, I was going to do everything in my power to change that for us.”
The loss ends the Lions’ season with a record of 40-14, the second-highest win total in program history behind last season’s 42 victories. A&M-Commerce finished second in the Lone Star Conference with a 23-7 LSC mark, and were runners-up in the LSC Tournament, falling to Texas A&M-Kingsville in the title match. After being seeded second in the South Central Region, the Lions were able to host the Regional Tournament for the first time ever. This was the third time in the program’s five-year history that the team made the NCAA postseason.
Five seniors will be graduating from the team, and some will be leaving as all-time record holders in A&M-Commerce softball. Nunez leaves the program as the all-time leader in runs scored with 177 and second in games played, at-bats, hits, triples and stolen bases. Dean graduates as the school’s leader in wins, starts, innings pitched and appearances on the mound.
The Cameron Aggies advance to the NCAA South Central Super Regional to face A&M-Kingsville, who is making their first-ever trip to the Super Regionals.