BUIES CREEK, N.C. - Stevi Johnson's two-run home run and a dominant performance by the Charleston Southern defense led the No. 5 Buccaneers past No. 4 Liberty on Thursday afternoon in the first round of the 2015 Big South Softball Championships, 4-3.
CSU's defense helped Bucs starter Jennifer Giles (14-15) out of three bases-loaded jams in the contest as Liberty stranded 12 runners on base in the game in the loss. Charleston Southern advances into the winner's bracket on Friday afternoon and will play the winner of No. 1 Longwood/No. 9 Gardner-Webb at 2 p.m. at Amanda Littlejohn Stadium. The game will be streamed live via the Big South Network.
The Bucs defense helped CSU's senior ace inside the circle as Giles struggled with a bout of wildness in closing out CSU's fifth straight Big South postseason win. CSU went 4-0 last year on their way to winning the 2014 Big South Championship and the program's first NCAA Tournament berth.
Liberty plated two runs in the bottom of the first and appeared to have control of the game behind starter Chandler Ball (19-11), before Johnson broke up the Liberty ace's no-hit bid with a two-run shot in the top of the fourth inning to tie the game up at 2-2.
"In tournament time you know you are going have high pressure situations and today we lost in most areas of the game except for one, the final score," said CSU head coach Shane Winkler. "We got a couple great defensive plays. Offensively, Stevi Johnson with the homerun got us on the board and going. Like I said, we didn't win in many areas but we won in the final score, and that is the one that really matters."
Brook Richardson, Georgi DeLio, Stephanie Bergmann and Natalie Yonan all had key defensive plays for the Bucs with Richardson making the diving catch on a line drive to left field, while Bergmann and Yonan made a pair of great throws to end the Liberty threat in the fourth. DeLio, making her first collegiate start at third base in the game, ended the Flames bases-loaded threat in the sixth by back-handing the grounder down the line, stepping on third and throwing across to first to complete the double play.
"We hope that today got the nerves out a little bit," Winkler said about his team's performance. "Giles is going keep getting the ball. The big thing she is that she didn't give up a big hit; that's the key. Either way we are going play a good team rest of the way in the winner's bracket. The nerves are hopefully gone and continue to play aggressive and keep the pressure on our opposing team."
Liberty jumped ahead of the Bucs early after Ball set CSU down in order in the top of the first. Tori Zavodny doubled down the left field line to put runners on second and third with two outs. Madison Kotchey followed with a single to right, driving in Megan Robinson and Zavody to put the Flames up 2-0.
The Flames threatened to add to their lead in both the second and third innings, loading the bases against Giles in both frames, but both times the CSU defense stepped up. Johnson ended the Liberty threat in the second, corralling the line drive from Kelby Allen for the final out in right field, while Giles caught Blair Lawrence looking at strike three to end the third.
Brook Richardson was the first CSU runner to reach base, drawing a one-out walk in the top of the third, but the Bucs offense was not able to break through until Johnson's at-bat in the fourth inning. Johnson worked a 2-0 count before drilling a two-run home run to straightaway centerfield, scoring Marci Christian, to even the game. It was Johnson's second Big South postseason home run as the sophomore connected on her first collegiate home run last year in the first round matchup of the 2014 Big South Championships against Longwood.
DeLio kept the CSU offense going with a one-out walk. Cierra Robinson came in to pinch run, stealing her sixth base of the season to put a runner in scoring position with two outs, and Brittany McPherson followed with an RBI single down the left field line to give the Bucs their first lead of the contest.
CSU added to their lead in the fifth as Matsumoto reached on a bunt single. The errant throw on the play sailed down the right field line allowing her to reach second. After Christian drew a walk, Johnson dropped a sacrifice bunt to move both runners into scoring position. Bergmann followed with the scoring hit in the frame, dropping an RBI single down the left field line to double the CSU lead.
Liberty put runners in scoring position in the sixth, but DeLio's double play kept the Flames at bay.
The Flames mounted one final rally in the seventh with Zavodny and Kotchey connecting on back-to-back singles to open the frame. A sacrifice bunt moved both into scoring position where Jamie Crisp brought in Zavodny on a groundout to second. After Giles issued a walk to Mickey Loveridge, the CSU senior got Lawrence to ground out to Bergmann at short to end the contest.
Giles went the distance for her 14th complete game of the season. She scattered eight hits and pitched her way around eight walks, striking out four in the tournament victory.
Ball went the distance for the Flames, allowing four hits and four runs, walking six and striking out six in the loss.