A lengthy rain delay during the first semifinal and an 8-4 Minnesota victory over Northwestern took Amanda Lehotak’s Nittany Lions and the top-seeded Michigan Wolverines to the diamond on a chilly Saturday at Beard Field with a spot in the 2016 Big Ten Softball Tournament Championship up for grabs.
In its first time ever hosting the conference’s postseason tournament, No. 4 seed Penn State (30-24) booked its semifinal date with the regular season champs thanks to a thrilling 8-7 win over Nebraska Friday evening. The Wolverines (46-4) advanced to the Big Ten title game, however, besting the ladies in blue and white 6-1.
How It Happened
Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Megan Betsa trotted out to the rubber and promptly retired the first three Nittany Lions — who were actually stationed in the away dugout — to start the ballgame. Despite picking up two quick outs in the bottom of the first, junior starter Marly Laubach struggled to tame the Wolverines’ thunderous bats for long. Kelsey Susalla blooped an RBI single to right field before Tera Blanco and Aidan Falk jacked back-to-back homers for three more runs and an early 4-0 cushion.
Lehotak decided to switch things up in the bottom of the second, as the window for a comeback against the second-best team in the nation grew smaller with each crack of the aluminum. Penn State’s go-to reliever, imposing freshman Maddie Seifert, brought a calmness to the Nittany Lions’ defense. Third baseman Shelby Miller put on a hot-corner clinic, making a clutch tag before turning an unassisted double play to end the inning moments later.
Betsa logged another pair of outs in short order, but surrendered three walks in a row to the top of Penn State’s lineup to load the bases. All-Big Ten catcher Alyssa VanDerveer, the grand-slam-hitting hero of Friday’s quarterfinal win, milked the count to full against Betsa before trusting her eye to draw a walk and the first run for the Nittany Lions. Big Ten Coach of the Year Carol Hutchins gave Sara Driesenga the ball in a difficult situation and the graduate senior delivered by inducing a Kristina Brackpool pop-fly out to keep it 4-1.
Michigan loaded the bases in the bottom of the third, but Seifert escaped the jam, allowing only one run to cross the plate on a Lindsay Montemarano single to left. Miller legged out an infield single to short to give Penn State its first hit of the evening, but Montemarano made a slick play at third to stifle the Nittany Lions’ momentum.
Driesenga mowed through the top of Penn State’s order in the fifth, going three up, three down to maintain a 5-1 lead. VanDerveer stepped up to the dish, belting a double to the left-center gap to give the Nittany Lions a runner in scoring position, but three consecutive groundouts followed.
Michigan picked up an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth, as Lawrence singled in shortstop Abby Ramirez to make it 6-1. The Wolverines finished with 10 hits to Penn State’s three. Senior Erin Pond added a single to start the seventh, but Driesenga closed out the Nittany Lions’ hopes of a rally to set up a Big Ten Championship showdown between Michigan and Minnesota immediately following.
The Wolverines scored a staggering five of their six runs with two outs, but perhaps the most surprising stat of the night was the fact that Penn State held legendary three-time Big Ten Player of the Year Sierra Romero hitless (0-for-4).
Player Of The Game
Sierra Lawrence | Senior | Center fielder
The Snellville, Ga., native did it all for the Wolverines Saturday, going 3-for-3 from the plate (all singles), while recording a walk, an RBI, and scoring a run of her own.
The Nittany Lions await Sunday’s 2016 NCAA Softball Tournament Selection Show at 10 p.m. on ESPNU, which will reveal whether they earn a coveted at-large bid or begin preparations for next year. Regardless of the outcome, here’s to all the exciting moments that made this a groundbreaking season for Penn State softball.