The Patriot League champion Mountain Hawks pose for team picture with their trophy.
Twice before this season, Lehigh led Army 3-1 going into the last at bat, and twice before Army had come away with victories.
This time around, however, the Mountain Hawks bore down, defeating the Black Knights in 11 innings Sunday to win the Patriot League softball championship and clinch an NCAA Tournament bid.
In a thrilling contest, both teams had multiple opportunities to come away with a victory in several innings, but in the end Lehigh was able to capitalize on two Army errors in the top of the 11th to earn their first Patriot League tournament title since 2001.
Both teams played fairly close to the vest the first few innings, and neither team was able to put together consecutive base hits. Things began to get interesting in the fifth, however, as Army loaded the bases against Lehigh starter Kate Arico with no one out on two singles and an error, though none of the balls left the infield.
At that point, Lehigh coach Fran Troyan went to his bullpen and brought in Emily Ling, who had retired the last 19 batters she faced on Saturday in shutting out Bucknell. Ling was sensational, striking out three straight Black Knights to help Lehigh escape unscathed.
A controversial play
In the top of the sixth, it was Lehigh’s turn to get something started. With Lehigh loading the bases with one out against Ashlie Christian, Army sent for Leigh Harrell, the losing pitcher in a 1-0 defeat to Lehigh on Saturday. Harrell then induced Liz Gripp to line out to short, and then shortstop Lauren Gobar threw quickly to third to double off Mary Wieder to end the inning.
The game remained scoreless into the eighth, when Lehigh finally broke through. An RBI single by Erin Hengemuhle scored Jessica Young from second base, and the Mountain Hawks took a 1-0 lead. Controversy then ensued.
With Hengemuhle on second and Lauren Haney on first after a single, Liz Gripp came to the plate again. Gripp rapped a ball sharply to short, and Gobar appeared to mishandle it to load the bases.
However, Army head coach Jim Flowers came out to argue that Hengemuhle had interfered with Gobar’s ability to field the ball cleanly, and after a discussion the umpires ruled in Army’s favor and called Hengemuhle out at third for the second out of the inning.
So instead of bases loaded with one out, it became first and second with two outs. Kelly Kliewer then flew out to center to end the threat.
Now three outs away from winning the title, all Lehigh needed to do was stop Army in the eighth, but the Black Knights dug in and showed their mettle.
Darcy Wilson led off the inning with a single, then scored the tying run on a double by Jamie Gjurgervich that missed being a game-ending walk-off home run by just a few inches. With Gjurgevich on second, Nikki Posey singled up the middle, and it appeared Army might pull off the win.
But freshman centerfielder Whitney Schenbeck fired a perfect strike to the plate, where Mary Wieder laid down a textbook block and Gjurgevich was gunned out.
Extra innings victory
The game remained tied into the 11th, with Lehigh unable to take advantage of miscues by the Army defense. Finally, the Black Knights' lack of execution came back to haunt them.
Mendy Martin walked to start the inning, then took second on a wild pitch. Shana Treon then reached on an error by Gobar at short to put runners at the corners with no one out. Schenbeck followed with a grounder to first, but Lisa Huntington couldn’t come up with it and Martin scored on the error.
Lehigh picked up a crucial insurance run as Jessica Young singled to plate Treon, and the Mountain Hawks headed to the bottom of the 11th with the two-run lead.
In the 11th, Ling took out all the drama, retiring Army in order to clinch Lehigh’s sixth Patriot League Tournament championship.
“I told the team before the tournament started that pitching and defense were a huge part of the equation,” said a satisfied Troyan after the game. “I showed them a pie chart with six different components it takes to win ballgames, and those are the two biggest factors. Our pitching was outstanding all weekend long, and we executed offensively (another item on the pie chart) when it mattered.
"You take your hat off to Army, though. They played so well the whole weekend. Coach Flowers had his team thinking they would win, and we had our team thinking we would win, and in the end we were just able to come away with the title.”
Lehigh’s pitchers combined to give up only a single run in 25 innings in the tournament, and struck out 22 batters as well. Ling (15-4) took the victory in the title game, working seven innings in relief of Arico and giving up one run on four hits while striking out seven, including the three big ones to keep Army off the board in the fifth.
“I knew I had to make something happen out there when I came on,” said Ling on the radio postgame show. “In a tight game like that I knew we couldn’t afford to let them score, so I just went after them as best I could, and fortunately it worked out.”
“We had some difficulty with them earlier this season in the late innings,” said Gripp, who along with Treon is the only member of this team to have reached the NCAAs before. “But after winning the last two games of our series with them, we gained that confidence to know we could stop them when it mattered.”
Harrell (15-12) took the hard-luck loss for Army.
Wieder went 3-4 on the day to earn Tournament MVP honors, and Haney led the team with four hits in six at-bats on the morning.
The dramatic win improves Lehigh's overall record to 40-15-2 on the season, setting a school and Patriot League season record for victories.
The Mountain Hawks will have some time to recuperate after the victory as they wait to see where they will head in the NCAA Tournament. Regional action gets underway on May 20, and Lehigh will wait until May 16 to find out where the team is headed.