GULF SHORES, Ala. — The Lady Hawks had advanced all the way to the national championship game behind a breathtaking run and stood as the only unbeaten team left in the dwindling field as Championship Wednesday approached.
Extra innings weren’t about to keep Shorter from cashing in on its moment.
Emily Clements drove in the game winning run with an infield single in the bottom of the ninth inning and tournament Most Outstanding Player Maddie Bray tossed a nine-inning, three-hit shutout as 10th-ranked Shorter captured the school’s first NAIA softball national championship with a 1-0 victory over third-ranked Oklahoma City in the title game of the 2012 NAIA Softball National Championship in Gulf Shores, Ala.
The Lady Hawks (53-11) capped a 7-0 run through the national tournament and made good on their first-ever national championship game appearance with the extra inning shutout of the Stars (47-20), who were making their 13th appearance in the title game and were denied a record ninth national championship.
Former Calhoun standout Bre Johnson was a part of the win as she played third base for the Lady Hawks. Johnson had three hits, including a double, and an RBI during Shorter’s run in Gulf Shores at the NAIA Softball Championship.
Shorter, which was playing in its final national tournament at the NAIA level with its pending move to NCAA Division II next year, finally broke through in its sixth straight trip to the tourney.
“It really hasn’t settled in yet,” said Shorter head coach Al Thomas, whose team notched its school record 53rd win with the title game victory. “As we prepared for this tournament, we really focused on trying to stay relaxed and going out of our way to make sure the girls took each game one at a time.
“That was the secret to this run – go and get the one in front of you – and the kids bought in.”
For the second time this tournament, the Lady Hawks got the best of Oklahoma City All-America pitcher Lily LeVelle – but just barely. LeVelle, who set tournament records for strikeouts (88) and innings pitched (65.1) during her team’s run to the title game, kept Shorter off the scoreboard over the first eight innings by working out of trouble on several occasions.
Shorter finally broke through in the ninth inning after missing out on several scoring opportunities throughout the game. The Lady Hawks stranded 13 runners, including two in the seventh and eighth innings and the bases loaded in the third.
Clements, who struck out with the bases jammed in that third inning, found herself with an opportunity to redeem herself in the ninth after Charlsie Broome stroked a triple to the right center field wall with one out. Like in the third, Oklahoma City intentionally walked Southern States Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jackie Castaneda to get to Clements, who ripped a ball to the left of a diving Angela Lovelady at second allowing Broome to coast home with the game winning run.
“I was thinking I had to do this for my teammates,” said Clements, who drove in a team-high seven runs during the tournament. “I had been hitting bloopers all day, but I finally got one on the ground. Charlsie ran as hard as she could to get to third and I was determined to get her in.”
Shorter may not have had a chance to win the game had it not been for a defensive gem by Broome in the Oklahoma City half of the frame.
With two outs in the top of the ninth, LeeAnn Lopez drove a pitch deep to center sending Broome on a retreat toward the fence. The 2012 SSAC Gold Glove Outfielder reached over the wall and snatched away what would have been the go ahead run for the Stars.
“I knew I had it the whole way,” said Broome, who finished 3-for-4 on the day to pace Shorter offensively. “We work on that in practice and so it felt routine.”
Broome’s catch made attention on the national stage as well as it was featured as the No. 2 play on ESPN Sportscenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day.
Bray, a freshman, was outstanding in the circle for the Lady Hawks, notching her fifth win of the tournament and 19th of the season. She struck out two and walked none against the Stars and claimed Most Outstanding Player honors after going 5-0 with a 0.81 ERA for the week. The SSAC Co-Freshman of the Year tallied 23 strikeouts in 34.2 innings of work at her first national tournament.
“I just looked at today as any other game,” said Bray when asked about her matchup with LeVelle. “I was excited that we had the chance to play for a championship and I didn’t put much into the difference in experience. We just had to play hard and that is what we did.”
Shorter’s run to the title included a win over defending national champion and No. 7-ranked Oregon Tech in the Pool G championship game, victories over No. 2-ranked Cal State San Marcos and Oklahoma City in the first two bracket round games on Monday and a fourth win in six tries against conference rival Brenau in Tuesday’s semifinal. A second win over perennial power Oklahoma City capped a memorable run for Shorter.
“We play in the toughest conference in the country, which shows when four of the final eight teams are from the SSAC,” said Thomas. “That creates a situation where we are accustomed to playing the top teams in the nation, so when we get here, these teams look very similar to us.”
“This is just so awesome,” said Clements. “We have been working so hard to get this. I am so excited and proud for this team.”
“This is the best feeling in the world,” Broome said. “There is no better way to go out than with a national championship.”
“I am just so happy for our seniors – Charlsie, Emily and Brooke Bryan,” Thomas said. “All year long we have depended upon those three kids. Brooke has come up with big hits for us all year and made some good defensive plays for us today.
“For Clem and Charlsie to be the one-two punch at the plate to win us the national championship is fitting.”
Joining Bray on the All-Tournament team were Broome, Castaneda – who went 9-for-16 with two homers for the tournament – and Clements.