MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - A familiar foe awaits No. 7 Charleston Southern from the opposing dugout tomorrow afternoon as No. 1 Coastal Carolina stands between the Buccaneers and a berth in the NCAA Tournament at the 2014 Big South Conference Championships hosted by Musco Sports Lighting. First pitch between the Bucs and the Chanticleers is set for noon with the action to be shown live nationwide on ESPNU.
Mark Neely and Amanda Scarborough will be calling the action on ESPNU from the press box overlooking the CCU Softball Field in the winner-take-all format as Charleston Southern faces off in the against Coastal Carolina for the third time in Big South Tournament Championship game in the history of both programs.
Charleston Southern is seeking their second bid to the NCAA tournament, while a Coastal Carolina victory will propel the Chanticleers to the Regional round for the seventh time in program history. The NCAA Tournament selection show will reveal the 2014 bracket tomorrow night at 10 p.m., with Regional action running from May 16-18 on 16 campus sights. Super Regionals will be held from May 22-25, while the College World Series will be held at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium – OGE Energy Field in Oklahoma City, Okla., from May 29-June 4.
The Buccaneers won the inaugural Big South Tournament championship game in the 1988 season, topping Coastal Carolina, 10-0. The victory remains Charleston Southern's lone softball Big South Championship.
Coastal Carolina won their most recent Championship matchup back in 2012, defeating Charleston Southern at the RU Softball Field on ESPNU, 4-1. Kristin Kelleher connected on a solo home run in the top of the first inning for the Buccaneers to put CSU ahead early, but Coastal Carolina's Ashley Bagwell had a career high 13 strikeouts in the contest, retiring the final 13 batters she faced in the game as the Chants scored in runs in each of the first four innings to take the victory and the NCAA Tournament berth.
Since the last time the teams met in the Championship game, only seven Buccaneers remain on the roster that dressed out for the 2012 season including 2012 championship game starting pitcher Morgan Dowdy, seniors Stephanie Sbardella, Lizzy Olmstead, Ari Tedesco, Jessica Brock, Hayes Holdsworth and junior Jennifer Giles. Coastal Carolina returns Brooke Donovan, Kory Hayden, Kiana Quolas, Sara Rasley and Ashley Bagwell from the starting lineup in the previous championship game against the Bucs.
Coastal Carolina has dominated the series over the past three years with the Chanticleers winning seven of the last nine regular season contest against the Buccaneers. CSU's last two victories against the Chants came back in the 2012 season with the Bucs topping Coastal 1-0 at the CCU Softball Field and 4-3 at the CSU Softball Field during the season. In the playoffs during the same time span, Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina have battled evenly, splitting 2-2 following CSU's 2-0 win over the No. 1 Chanticleers last season in Rock Hill, S.C. on the opening day of the tournament.
Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina both went undefeated through the double-elimination bracket as the No. 7 Buccaneers pulled off three straight upsets behind the strong play of freshmen Cheyenne Gandara, Stephanie Bergmann and Amanda Matsumoto, as well as timely hitting by seniors Stephanie Sbardella and Jessica Brock.
The No. 7 Buccaneers, in advancing to the 2014 Big South Conference Championship Game, become the first No. 7 seed to reach the championship and the lowest seed to play on championship Sunday in Big South tournament history.
Charleston Southern topped No. 2 Longwood, 5-2, on the opening day of the tournament to advance into the winner's bracket behind a two-run home run by Stevi Johnson and a dominant complete game effort by Gandara. Home runs by Sbardella and freshman catcher Georgi DeLio sparked the CSU offense against No. 6 Presbyterian as the Buccaneers topped the Blue Hose, 4-3, on Friday afternoon. Needing one win on Saturday to advance, Brock took care of all the run support the CSU pitching staff required with a three-run blast over the centerfield fence as the Buccaneers eliminated Longwood, 7-2.
Coastal Carolina made their way to the tournament championship game in similar fashion, defeating opponents from Liberty, Winthrop and Campbell in going undefeated. The Chants topped the No. 9 Flames on the tournament's opening day, 3-1, and followed it up with a 7-3 win over No. 4 Winthrop on Friday afternoon. Saturday the Chanticleers needed a late rally to surge past the No. 5 Camels, 5-3, to advance to the Championship game for their Big South leading 13th appearance in the title game.
Charleston Southern fell in all three games to the Chanticleers in the regular season matchup between the teams as the Buccaneers dropped 2-1, 1-0 and 7-2 decisions on the road to Coastal Carolina.
With head coach Shane Winkler preaching fearlessness into his team heading into the tournament, the Buccaneers have responded with career performances by the Big South All-Freshmen trio of Bergmann, Matsumoto and Gandara.
Bergmann, in particular, has been clutch when the game has been on the line in the tournament so far and enters the game on a five-game hitting streak, including adding two hits apiece in all three games of the Big South Tournament so far including doubles against Presbyterian and Longwood to pace the CSU bats at the plate with a .600 batting average. Matsumoto made her postseason debut in record-breaking fashion, setting a Big South newcomer record in going a perfect 4-for-4 from the plate in her first game of the tournament. The Palatine, Ill., native has added three runs scored and a stolen base to her totals in hitting .545 over the three game stretch.
Inside the circle, Gandara has peaked at the right time of the season as the Hemet, Calif., native recorded both wins in the tournament against Longwood, and rebounded from a two-run home run in the seventh inning against Presbyterian to strike out the side against the Blue Hose in picking up the save. For the season, Gandara leads the Buccaneers in multiple categories including ERA (2.35), appearances (37), complete games (11), shutouts (2), saves (2), innings (154.2), strikeouts (147) and opposing batting average (.234).
Charleston Southern's offense on the season has ridden the bats and senior leadership of Brock and Sbardella in the heart of the Buccaneers lineup.
Brock, the 2014 Big South Second Team All-Conference Utility player, has connected on only one hit in the postseason this year, but the effects of that hit will still be visible during tomorrow afternoon's championship game. In the third inning against the Lancers, the Puyallup, Wash., native smashed the offering from Elizabeth McCarthy over the centerfield fence for the go-ahead three-run blast. The trajectory of the ball caused it to connect with one of the palm trees towering over the fence, with the ball sticking among the interlocking branches 25 feet above the field. Affectionately known as the "palm ball" by the tournament operations staff, the ball will be visible from the field through the championship game.
Sbardella has also shown off her power stroke during the weekend, connecting on her third home run of the season in the top of the first inning against Presbyterian. The Fairfax Station, Va., native is batting .500 in the postseason and .302 from the plate overall on the year, reaching base in 45 of the Buccaneers 58 games.
Johnson has also provided a power stroke in the lineup for the Buccaneers' offense during the tournament as the Visalia, Calif., connected on arguably the biggest home run in the CSU tournament run to date. In the opening game against the Lancers, the freshman right fielder drilled a two-run shot over the left field fence, setting the tone early in the CSU opening win over Longwood.