HATTIESBURG, Miss. – In a season that has been filled with injuries, obstacles and most recently an F3 tornado that destroyed its facility 10 days ago, Louisiana Tech overcame a plethora of adversity to capture a share of the program’s first ever regular season championship on Sunday.
Krystal De La Cruz and Preslee Gallaway each tossed complete-game victories and freshmen Lindsay Edwards and Mary Terral hit key home runs as Tech defeated Southern Miss 8-1 and 4-1 during the Golden Eagles Senior Day at USM Softball Complex.
With the two wins, Tech shared the league title with North Texas and will be the No. 2 seed in the C-USA Tournament in Birmingham this week. Tech and UNT receive a double bye and won’t play until Thursday.
After falling 5-3 in game one on Saturday night, Tech (41-14, 19-5) also had to overcome some demons of the past two years. Tech entered the final series of the season last year needing just one win in a three-game series at UTEP to claim the title, but the Techsters dropped all three games.
In 2017, Tech entered the final weekend of the regular season at FIU needing one win to earn a top two seed and the double bye, but lost all three games.
After falling to USM Saturday night, memories of those failures had to be flushed if the Techsters were to have a chance Sunday.
“I think the resiliency of this team was once again on display today,” said Tech head coach Mark Montgomery. “The last two years the last conference series has been a struggle for us. We have gone in and played with pressure to try to achieve something, and both times we tripped. That looked like what was going to happen after last night’s games.
“Throughout the year I think that when this group starts to feel that pressure or it starts to feel like it’s been knocked down, they are really good about dusting themselves off, putting things in proper perspective and going to work. That’s what they did today.”
De La Cruz (15-3) found herself in a pitcher’s duel with Southern Miss ace Abby Trahan in game one on Sunday. Tech plated a run in the top of the second inning when Sloane Stewartson crossed home plate on a double steal. USM answered in the bottom of the fourth inning on a solo home run by Lacey Sumerlin, the second of her three on the weekend.
Both teams had additional opportunities to score, including having runners thrown out at the plate in the third inning – Morgan Turkoly threw out the go-ahead run at home making the throw from her knees after diving at a ball in shallow left field. But De La Cruz and Trahan stayed in control.
That is until the top of the sixth inning.
Jazlyn Crowder and Stewartson recorded back-to-back doubles to right centerfield to put runners on second and third with no outs. Edwards, who has been one of the top freshman in Conference USA all season, wasted little time in making the most of the opportunity. On the first pitch from Trahan, Edwards lined her fifth home run of the season down the left field line, giving Tech a 4-1 advantage.
Tech wasn’t done in the frame. Terral doubled with one out, chasing Trahan from the game. Berkley Calapp followed with a single, her second hit of the game and one of three in the doubleheader and four on the weekend, putting runners on the corners. Following a strikeout, Kimmie Atienza lined a two-run single to right field upping the Tech lead to 6-1. Morgan Turkoly followed with an RBI single up the middle, completing the six-run sixth inning.
De La Cruz continued to cruise in the circle, getting a ground ball double play to end the bottom of the sixth inning, keeping the six-run lead intact. Tech added another run in the seventh on Bayli Simon’s RBI single up the middle, upping the advantage to 8-1.
Southern Miss (30-21, 13-11) only got one runner on base in the bottom of the seventh before De La Cruz recorded the final out of the game.
“We’ve had a tendency to play with pressure on our last conference series for the last three years, and we didn’t let that happen today,” said De La Cruz. “We played a lot more relaxed today and had a purpose. It means so much for this senior class to finish our last conference series on a high note and as regular season conference champions.
“This isn’t something we did just for ourselves, but for the University and for the Ruston community as well. I’m excited to go back to work with this group at the conference tournament this week.”
With the win in game one, Tech clinched the number two seed in the C-USA Tournament and a double bye. However, with North Texas defeating Middle Tennessee in Denton, the Lady Techsters still knew they had work to do in order to claim a share of the program’s first regular season title.
After watching her teammate shine in the circle in game one, it was Gallaway’s turn to do the same in the rubber game of the series. The reigning Conference USA Player of the Year made the most of the opportunity.
The Tech offense gave Gallaway an early 1-0 lead. Crowder singled with two outs in the top of the first and then scored on Stewartson’s double down the right field line.
The score remained 1-0 until the bottom of the fourth inning when freshman AJ Williams came through with two outs.
With runners on second and third, Williams flared a ball to shallow right field that fell for a two-run single, giving Tech a 3-0 lead.
“I tell every player on my team that the lineup we start out with on opening day has never been the lineup I wrote out on the last day of the season,” said Montgomery. “You never know when your time will come and your skills will be called upon to win a game. We had outstanding contributions today from Berkley, Sloane and AJ, several people who may not have been key contributors on a daily basis all year to different factors. But boy they sure were today.”
USM answered in the bottom of the fourth inning, scoring a run on an unusual play. Sumerlin hit a Gallaway offering to deep centerfield. Crowder with her back against the centerfield wall reached up to make the catch but saw the ball ricochet out of her glove and over the fence. The play was ruled a home run.
Tech, nor Gallaway, allowed the mistake to change the momentum as the Pilot Point, Texas, native retired six of the next seven batters she faced to keep Southern Miss from adding to its run total.
Terral came up big for Tech in the top of the seventh inning, working a full court against USM reliever Bailee Springfield before driving the 3-2 offering deep over the left field wall for her eighth home run of the season.
Gallaway didn’t allow Southern Miss to get any hope in the bottom of the seventh inning, retiring the Golden Eagles in order to preserve the win.
“Being part of a team that makes history is indescribable,” said Gallaway. “When this team plays with no fear, we are hard to beat. That’s what we did today. It’s an honor to win the C-USA title but we’ve still got a ton to play for this week. We are going to leave our hearts out on the field and play for each other, just like we did today.”
“I’ve said it all year long that we have two of the best pitchers in the conference on this team,” said Montgomery. “As long as they are pitching well, we are really tough to beat. And they both pitched extremely well today.”
Tech reached the 40-win plateau for only the sixth time in program history and the first time since 1995. Even after the final out was recorded, the Tech players went through the hand shake line with Southern Miss and then calmly walked to the outfield to quietly celebrate as a team … a sign that this group has additional goals to reach in the next few weeks.
“The conference championship means so much to all of us,” said Crowder. “After everything that we have been through together and coming up short last year, to now be on top of Conference USA is such an amazing feeling. This is what we have worked so hard all year for, but I can’t wait to take the field with this group on Thursday.”