There would be no storybook ending for the SUNY Cortland softball team.
After staying alive with a remarkable 13-12 come-from-behind victory over Rowan University to get Sunday’s NCAA Division III regional championship round underway, the host Red Dragons seemed to have grasped a huge chunk of momentum.
So give Rowan heaps of credit for spoiling the occasion, as the top-seeded visitors from New Jersey recovered from that staggering loss to capture the title game rematch that followed by a 7-3 margin. That enabled the Profs to move along in this national tournament that crowns a champion on May 31 in Salem, Virginia.
“We just kind of ran out of steam,” said Cortland head coach Julie Lenhart after a five-run rally in the top of the seventh inning had pulled out an emotional opening victory to keep the second-seeded Red Dragons going in this double-elimination affair.
“It wasn’t the hits,” she added, as her Cortland club actually had a 7-6 hit advantage in the second game setback. “We didn’t play as well as we needed to play. Rowan is great. You’ve got to play well against them.”
In a chilly and breezy setting at Dragon Field where snow showers made a surprising mid-May appearance, Cortland (38-11) faced the daunting Sunday task of having to beat Rowan (38-9) twice — thanks to Rowan’s 1-0 victory over Cortland in Saturday’s winner’s bracket showdown. That sent the Red Dragons into the loser’s bracket, where they advanced to the championship round with a 10-2 six-inning win over Vermont’s Castleton to close out play on Saturday.
Cortland then overcame 8-2 and 12-8 deficits in Sunday’s opener, thanks to a seventh inning revival featuring clean-up hitter Kaleigh Churchill’s two-run homer, an RBI double by Anna Schoonmaker and Rosie Phillips’ sacrifice fly lofted into right field that delivered the go-ahead run.
“That was one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of,” said Cortland shortstop Erin Wolstenholme, who played her way on the all-tournament team with a productive weekend.
The Red Dragons then scored twice in the first inning of the ensuing title game, helped out by three walks and two errors, and Rowan appeared to be reeling.
THAT’S WHEN ROWAN coach Kim Wilson turned to freshman pitcher MacKenzie Juodaitis. Making her first appearance at this three-day regional, Juodaitis kept Cortland scoreless until the top of the seventh. That’s when Wolstenholme lined a one-out double to right-center and Mikayla Shade followed with a two-out RBI single to plate pinch-runner Allisa De Padua before a strikeout ended the Red Dragons’ season.
“She did an amazing job. If we knew she was going to have that kind of game we would have started her and not made it so difficult,” said Coach Wilson of Juodaitis, who was beckoned six batters into the opening inning. “MacKenzie is really solid out there. She’s stoic. You didn’t know whether she was striking somebody out or walking somebody.”
After handing Cortland those two early runs, Rowan recovered. A walk and singles by tournament MVP Damariez Mercado and Nicole Paiotti loaded the bases before an error and ground-out produced runs that tied the game at 2-2 in the top of the second inning.
Three walks led to three Rowan runs in the third, with Carly Anderson’s RBI single also a featured attraction. Anderson added a two-run double in the fifth inning to give Juodaitis a 7-2 lead to protect.
“We just talked to them about it’s a one-game series, and we played one last weekend,” said Coach Wilson of how she got her team back on track, Rowan having won the New Jersey Athletic Conference the previous weekend. “Just keep it up and what got us here should get us to a victory. That was it. As disappointing as that first game was, sometimes you’ve got to fight through something to get to the ultimate destination.”
“WE WERE HOPING some momentum would carry over, but we said we can’t live or die by that. It’s just one game,” said Wolstenholme of the Cortland attitude between contests. “Neither of us wanted our seasons to end and we give it all we’ve got. And there’s not really much you can do. Things were going their way and we battled to the end. I’m so proud of what this team has accomplished.”
Wolstenholme, the Oneonta native who also played basketball for four years at Cortland but had an extra season of eligibility for a last fling with the softball team in her fifth year on campus, was among some departing seniors like all-time school home run leader Diane Cork, SUNY Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jamie Bucci and valuable Carrie Stoddard.
“They’re an incredible group of people and I’m going to miss them terribly,” said Wolstenholme of those playing their final game with the Red Dragons. “They’re amazing athletes and whoever is coming to wear their jerseys next have some really big shoes to fill.”
“The hard part about the spring is that when it does end it’s like everyone just scatters and you don’t see them,” said Coach Lenhart, as classes are over and graduation was held on campus Saturday. “You spend so much time together and then everyone just disappears.”
Cortland 13, Rowan 12: Neither starting pitcher — Alexandrea Flint for Cortland and Allison Nolan for Rowan — made it out of the first inning of this two and a half hour slugfest.
Cortland scored twice in the top of the first on RBI singles by Churchill and Shade, while the first seven Rowan batters all reached bases and scored — on a Ashley Young three-run home ruled to sail inside the foul pole in left and a grand slam home run off the bat of Mercado.
But Cortland stayed close, freshman pitcher Sam Van Dorn came on in the fifth to pick up the win and Cortland rallied in the seventh to erase a 12-8 deficit.
“It’s an indication of us having an outstanding year and we hated for it to end,” said Coach Lenhart of the dramatic Cortland comeback that featured first baseman Shade going 4-for-4 and driving home three runs. Churchill finished 3-for-4 with three RBIs including that clutch seventh inning home run, while Schoonmaker and Niki Barbato had two hits apiece.
Shade, Churchill and Bucci all joined Wolstenholme on the all-regional team for the Red Dragons.
Rowan 1, Cortland 0: Rowan’s Beth Ann Hyland won a pitching duel over Flint, as the Profs scored the game’s only run in the bottom of the third inning.
Shilah Snead singled with one out and took second on a Mia Baldassari single to shortstop. Cortland shortstop Wolstenholme made a nice diving stop on the Baldassari hit, but Snead beat the flip to second.
DeYoung followed with a line drive to deep center for an RBI single that plated Snead.
Cortland had runners reach second base in five of seven innings but couldn’t get on the scoreboard. Wolstenholme was 3-for-3 to account for half of Cortland’s six hits off Hyland.
Flint lost despite allowing just five hits.
Cortland 10, Castleton 2, 6 innings: Wolstenholme had a two-run homer in the third inning and Cork unloaded a two-run homer in the fourth as the Red Dragons won this elimination game to reach the championship round.
Cortland broke the game open with five runs in the top of the sixth, the key blow a two-run single by pinch-hitter Skyer Hoyt and a RBI double by Shade. Hoyt’s hit came after fouling off a three pitches before lining the ball to center.
Van Dorn (7-1) pitched the final four scoreless innings to get the win, allowing four hits with one strikeout.