MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - No. 7 Charleston Southern defeated No. 1 Coastal Carolina on Sunday afternoon in the 2014 Big South Conference Championship Game presented by Musco Sports Lighting as the Buccaneers used a dominant pitching performance by Cheyenne Gandara and clutch hitting by Georgi DeLio and Ari Tedesco to defeat the Chanticleers, 3-1, and earn CSU's first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in program history.
The Buccaneers, who came into the game as the lowest seed to make the Big South Conference Championship Game at the No. 7 slot, never trailed during their tournament run and built a 2-0 lead with Stevi Johnson and Brittany McPherson crossing the plate in the top of the fourth. Jessica Brock crossed the plate with an insurance run in the top of the fifth, scoring on a wild pitch, to provide Gandara (11-11) all the support she needed in the contest in closing out her third win of the weekend and Charleston Southern softball's second Big South Conference Tournament Championship.
"We talked about getting here from day one in practice," CSU head coach Shane Winkler had to say following the game as the team celebrated on the field. "We've been envisioning dog-piling there at the pitcher's circle since August. We knew we could accomplish this and we brought the energy and intensity that it took to win a championship. I'm so proud of these kids; absolutely proud of these kids. They fought for four straight games and they believed. That was the key and we did exactly what we came here to do."
The Buccaneers advance to the 2014 NCAA Softball tournament with play beginning in the NCAA Regional round on 16 campus sites around the country with action beginning on May 16-18. CSU will find out where they will be playing traveling to for Regional play on the Tournament Selection Show tonight at 10 p.m. on ESPNU. If the Bucs advance through the Regional pool, the 2014 NCAA Super Regionals will be held from May 22-25, while the Women's 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.
"We'll see who we'll play tonight, but we went into this weekend knowing that it doesn't matter who we play against," Winkler commented making the 2014 NCAA Tournament field. "We have to step up and take control of the things that we can control, which is ourselves. Going into regional play, we're going to take the same focus that it's not the best team that's going to win, it's the team that plays the best. We're going to try to stay on a roll and see if we can be the team that plays the best next weekend."
Gandara, the 2014 Big South Conference Tournament Most Valuable Player, hurled a complete game three-hitter for the Buccaneers on the afternoon, overcoming an early bout of wildness and using several clutch defensive plays to shut down the top seed in the tournament. Gandara allowed a single unearned run, striking out five and walking five in the contest in picking up her third win of the weekend. The freshman right-hander from Hemet, Calif., was arguably the most dominant pitcher in the tournament down the stretch in picking up two wins over No. 2 Longwood and a save against No. 6 Presbyterian on the weekend.
"Cheyenne was outstanding all weekend long," Winkler had to say about the performance of his freshman ace. "She was the best pitcher here and we relied on her a ton. To get three wins and a save; the kid was so clutch. She pitched better and better the more jams that we got into. When she had runners on base, she was absolutely tough as nails."
Joining Gandara on the All-Tournament team included senior first baseman Stephanie Sbardella, freshman shortstop Stephanie Bergmann and freshman centerfielder Amanda Matsumoto, but the story during the tournament run was the entire Charleston Southern team as contributions came from every player on head coach Shane Winkler's roster on their way to the Championship.
"I'm so proud of what every member of this team brought to the table this weekend," Winkler had to say about the overall effort every player on the CSU roster brought to the table during the tournament run. "Every player on the roster was brought here with one goal in mind during the whole recruiting process, and that's to win championships and get our program elevated to where we're competing nationally. Now, not because of the freshmen or the seniors, but because we played as one throughout the whole weekend, we get to take this entire group to regional play, which was our goal from day one."
In a game that featured both teams consistently leaving runners in scoring position, Charleston Southern broke the seal on the scoreboard in the top of the fourth in pushing two across to take the early 2-0 lead. Georgi DeLio drove in the first run of the game with a one out single as Stevi Johnson crossed the plate when the relay from centerfield bounced away from the Coastal Carolina catcher. With McPherson in to run for DeLio, Tedesco lined a single through the right side of the infield to bring her home in doubling up the Buccaneers' lead.
Coastal Carolina battled back with a run in the bottom of the fourth as Sara Rasley drew a leadoff walk, advancing to third on back-to-back sacrifice bunts by Maicie Hahn and Jessie Winans. Two batters later, Kiana Quolas reached base on an error, allowing Rasley to cross the plate to put the score at 2-1 in favor of the Bucs.
Charleston Southern added an insurance run in the top of the fifth off of Quolas, who entered the game for CCU starter Ashley Bagwell (14-9) in the frame. Jessica Brock led off the inning with a single to centerfield and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Sbardella dropped down a sacrifice bunt, advancing Brock 60 feet from the plate. She came across to score on Quolas' second wild pitch of the inning, sliding in under the tag attempt to put the Bucs ahead 3-1.
Gandara, in the mean time, had been battling through a bout of early wildness in allowing five walks over the first five innings. However, down the stretch, the freshman ace settled into a groove with one out in the bottom of the fifth.
After Coastal put two on with one out in the frame following Amanda Daneker's leadoff single and a one out walk issued to Brooke Donovan, with the bottom half of the lineup due up for the Chanticleers. However, Gandara took it from there, striking out Rasley and getting Hahn to hit a popup back to the mound to end the final Coastal Carolina threat in the game.
In the only 1-2-3 innings in the contest, Gandara retired the side in the bottom of the sixth and the seventh, with Stephanie Bergmann securing the final out on a line drive off of Kory Hayden's bat, sending the Buccaneers dugout over the railing and on to the field for the celebration.
On a beautiful Mother's Day on the campus of Coastal Carolina at the CCU Softball Field, the teams used clutch pitching and timely defensive plays to keep the game scoreless over the first three innings.
Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina left a combined 10 runners on base over the first three innings with the Bucs stranding two in the first inning, while Coastal Carolina left the bases loaded in the second frame as Gandara rallied to retire Bri Chiusano on strikes and Quolas on a popup to Sbardella at first base to keep the shutout bid intact.
Bagwell suffered the loss for the Chanticleers on the afternoon, going the first four innings in her first tournament action of the weekend. The right-hander allowed five hits and two runs (one earned), while striking out one. Quolas closed out the game inside the circle, hurling the final three innings in allowing three hits and one run.
Jessica Brock and Georgi DeLio had two hits apiece for the CSU offense on the afternoon, while Tedesco drove in the lone RBI for the Bucs. The Championship game was the only CSU game in the tournament that did not feature a Buccaneer extra-base hit as the Bucs posted eight hits (all singles) on the afternoon.
Coming into the contest, Charleston Southern sported 1-1 in Big South Championship games with all three championship appearances coming against Coastal Carolina. The Bucs picked up their lone win in the inaugural tournament in 1988, while Coastal Carolina returned the favor with a 4-1 win in the 2012 Big South Championship in Rock Hill, S.C.
With the win over Coastal Carolina, the Buccaneers also handed the Chanticleers their first Big South loss at home in the 2014 season. The Chants had been 15-0 against conference competition on the year including wins in the tournament against No. 9 Liberty, No. 5 Campbell and No. 4 Winthrop.
2014 Big South Championships All-Tournament Team
Cheyenne Gandara, P, Charleston Southern (MVP)
Amanda Matsumoto, OF, Charleston Southern
Stephanie Bergmann, SS, Charleston Southern
Stephanie Sbardella, 1B, Charleston Southern
Morgan Noad, DP, Coastal Carolina
Sara Rasley, 1B, Coastal Carolina
Kiana Quolas, P, Coastal Carolina
Katie Baker, P, Campbell
Milly Martinet, C, Campbell
Jamie Barbour, OF, Longwood
Carly Adams, INF, Longwood