BOSTON, Mass.— All year, the motto was 'play anywhere, win anywhere', and the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) softball team, through thick and thin, did just that, winning four-straight pressure-packed playoff games to become the 2019 Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) Champions, on a cool Saturday evening at Daly Field. With the victory, USJ earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship Tournament, following the first shutout in the GNAC Championship game since 2013.
The Blue Jays (27-17), who defeated Simmons University (SU), 3-0, in the finale, won their final six games of the season, including going a perfect 4-0 in the GNAC Tournament. The win marks USJ's third GNAC Championship in school history (women's basketball 1997-98, softball 2000) and the second for softball. It is the first GNAC Title under 14-year head coach Jim McKinnon.
"We had one goal at the start of the season. Get to the NCAA's, and we did. Every one of these players did something on this team to help us get to this point." Said McKinnon.
"We were just hoping to go out with a bang, and this was all we could have asked for, and a whole lot more," said junior pitcher Amaria Sharon (Tolland, Conn.), who was unstoppable throughout the tournament, tossing four complete games, including Saturday night's seven-inning shutout against a Simmons team that averaged nearly six runs a game all season (and had only been shutout once). Sharon was awarded the tournament's Most Valuable Player:
Amaria Sharon - 2019 GNAC Softball Tournament MVP
In the Circle: 28 IP, 1.25 ERA (22 H [5 XBH], 6 R, 5 ER, 13 K, BB) **4 CG, 2 S/O
At the Plate: .417 AVG (HR, 2 2B, 4 RBI)
Senior shortstop Isabella Russo (Southington, Conn.), senior center fielder Morgan Skoly (Vernon, Conn.) and sophomore right fielder Alessandra Milardo (Plantsville, Conn.) were selected to the all tournament team:
Madisyn Charest - Saint Joseph College (ME)
Caitlyn King - Saint Joseph College (ME)
Megan Kieselback - Emmanuel College
Kerry Sendrick – Emmanuel College
Ivy Vann – Simmons University
Maddie Castigliego – Simmons University
Hailey Yabroudy – Simmons University
Isabella Russo – University of Saint Joseph
Alessandra Milardo – University of Saint Joseph
Morgan Skoly – University of Saint Joseph
Amaria Sharon MVP – University of Saint Joseph
Sharon grabbed her 14th win of the season (14-5), allowing six hits in a complete game shutout. Sophomore pitcher Hailey Yabroudy (Amherst, N.H.) took the loss (7-9) despite a well-rounded performance (7 H, 3 R, 1 ER, K). At the plate, it was Milardo who stepped up when it mattered most, despite struggling in the morning semifinal game against Emmanuel College (EC). She kept her head high, and it showed, hitting 2-for-3 with a double, single, stolen base, and two runs scored. Sophomore first baseman Amanda Thiel (Torrington, Conn.) added an RBI single, while Sharon finished 1-for-3 with a single and a run. Russo, Skoly, and freshman left fielder Samantha Iannone (Wallingford, Conn.) all added a hit a piece. Six different Sharks had a single, including left fielder Ivy Vann (Bend, Ore.), and freshman designated player Maddie Castigliego (Bristol, R.I.), who were also recognized on the all-tournament team.
The first two innings on defense for USJ were highlighted by several tremendous plays at shortstop from Russo, who made a great diving 6-3 putout on one knee to save a single. Sharon's changeup was as it was all tournament long; virtually unhittable.
In the bottom of the second, Milardo smacked a leadoff single to center. Skoly followed it with a pop bunt that dropped in between the pitcher and the first base line. Perfect placement put Skoly on first. With one out and Iannone up, the Blue Jays pulled a few tricks out of their pockets, performing a double steal. Both ended up safe, and when the throw to third got away, Milardo took off for home, scoring run number one. Despite an Iannone single to follow, USJ would not get any more across in the inning, as the Sharks dialed in defensively, forcing a pop out and ground out to close the inning. 1-0 USJ.
SU made a great charge in USJ's shutdown inning; a two-out rally with back-to-back-to-back singles, loading the bases for senior first baseman Dom Ortiz (Lawrence, Mass.). Ortiz let it fly off the barrel of the bat to center field, but it was grabbed by Skoly, who came sprinting in for a pivotal third out.
After a pair of 1-2-3 innings, Saint Joe's tacked on their second run, kicked off by Milardo once again. A leadoff double gave the Blue Jays some options. Skoly moved her to third with a sacrifice bunt, leaving a runner on third with one away for Thiel. She wasted no time, finding the first pitch she liked and sliced an RBI single to right field. The Sharks showed poise once more, keeping it at just a run. 2-0 USJ after four.
A leadoff single by SU was not enough to faze the Blue Jays, who grabbed two force outs at second, and a great lineout catch from Iannone in left to end the top of the fifth. In the bottom half, Sharon hit a leadoff single to left. Senior third baseman Kara Klimaszewski (Naugatuck, Conn.) showed her experience with a well-placed bunt just a few feet in front of home plate, moving Sharon to second. Russo stepped in next with one away and hit a ground ball. However, as she raced for a photo finish at first, the throw went wide, and Sharon jumped on it, scoring easily to make it 3-0.
Sharon and company went back to work, now six outs from glory. The sixth was all Klimaszewski, who despite not hitting the way she would've hoped in the tournament, showed great leadership on the field, making many key plays at third. She picked up three straight 5-3 putouts to complete the sixth, each throw a bullet to first with ease.
The Sharks were down to their last three outs. A quick groundout put one away. A single from freshman third baseman Alex Morang (Windham, Maine), gave SU a fighting chance. Freshman shortstop Allie Mulhern (Westford, Mass.) stepped into the box. In what seemed like half a second, Mulhern fouled into a spectacular double play, as freshman catcher Lindsey O'Bright (New Britain, Conn.) sacrificed her body to make the play, and then had the IQ to throw the ball to first to get the double play before Morang could retreat. The Blue Jay dugout erupted, racing to the circle to mob Sharon and fellow teammates. Bear hugs were given at will while tears trickled down the eyes of 24 of softball's best. 24 champions. It was a night to remember: the University of Saint Joseph Blue Jays, your 2019 GNAC Champions.
"It's something they are always going to remember. They'll have that banner up in the gym every time they come back." McKinnon said.
With a conference championship comes an automatic bid into the NCAA Division III Softball Tournament. The official tournament selection show is slated for Monday, May 6 at 1:00 p.m. on NCAA.com.