WEST GOSHEN >> They dodged the rain drops during Thursday’s NCAA Super Regional Softball Series, but ultimately the defending PSAC champs were unable to avoid being eliminated by a West Chester squad seeking some sweet playoff redemption.
Playing at home for the final time this season, the Golden Rams swept Gannon to win the best-of-three series and advance to the NCAA Division II National Finals for the second time in the last five years. Only eight teams in the nation get an invite to Salem, Va., and WCU has once again joined that exclusive list.
“As a coaching staff, we are extremely proud of this team,” West Chester head coach Diane Lokey said. “They had to trust their preparation and they did.
“They’ve now reached their ultimate goal. This is something that they’ve talked about since we lost last year in the Super Regionals. I always say that it’s a marathon, and now we are at mile 26.”
The Rams (45-13 overall) got a pair of solid outings from starting pitchers Amanda Houck and Brooke Harner, and then added several big offensive rallies to oust the Golden Knights, 8-2 and 8-3.
“Everybody stuck to the plan and it worked,” said Lokey, who has guided the program to 40-plus wins in each of the last five seasons.
“We got to great performances from our senior pitchers, timely hitting and some great defense.”
The fact that the signature moment so far this season came against Gannon was an added bonus. Earlier this month, Gannon handed the Rams two losses in PSAC Tournament, including a win in the final. In fact, WCU’s only two setbacks since mid-April were to the Knights (32-15).
“As seniors we were so hungry for this,” said Harner, who made just her eighth start of the season in game two and got the win. “We’ve had a discussion several times in the postseason. We knew there was nothing that would stop us.
“This team is really special, we could trust our preparation and surrender the outcome.”
In the opener, Houck notched the 25th complete game of her senior season as the Rams raced to an early lead and never trailed. In the nightcap, West Chester got a gutsy five-plus innings from Harner — who entered the game with just 37 innings under her belt all season — and then the bats came around to stage a come from behind triumph that featured a dramatic six-run rally in the sixth inning.
“Going into this series we felt a lot more prepared at the plate,” Lokey explained. “Sometimes in the (conference) tournament things are rolling at you so fast, you don’t have all the information you need.”
With the score deadlocked at 1-1 in the nightcap, the Rams sent 10 batters to the plate in the sixth, registered seven hits and scored five of the six runs with two out. The big blow was a three-run homer by Heidi McCollester, but it started with a double by Madison Kelly and an RBI single by Alyssa Herion.
“Throughout the postseason, I haven’t been at my best,” said Herion, a junior from Avon Grove. “I knew that in this game that my team needed me to step up.
“I was actually planning on bunting during that at-bat. But coach said: ‘hit a line drive.’”
Lokey chimed in: “And she listened like a good ninja.”
“It gave me the confidence I needed in that moment,” Herion added.
In the following inning, Herion blasted her 29th career home run, equaling the school record. And even though Harner didn’t make it out of the sixth and was relieved by Houck, she wound up scattering five hits and got the win.
“That’s a very good West Chester team that beat us,” said Gannon head coach Tom Jakubowski.
“The better team beat us (Thursday). Two weeks ago when we beat them twice, we were the better team. That’s how softball goes sometimes.”
Lokey said it was always the plan to start Harner in game two. And the former Kennett High standout was asked about the moment she was informed of the decision.
“It that moment, I started internally vomiting,” she joked. “But it was one of those moments that was really special. One of the great blessings of being a part of this team is that there is never that overwhelming pressure where it has to be you because every single person plays such a vital role. We always have each other to rely on.”
Houck notched the 101st win of her career in the opener. Her only mistake was surrendering a two-run homer in the second inning, but the WCU offense had already jumped ahead 4-0 in the first, capped off by Sara Ercolani’s two-run double.
The Rams added four more in the fourth thanks to four hits and several costly errors by the Knights.
“Recently we’ve been having issues with big innings against us, and most often it’s been our defense — which has been great all year long,” Jakubowski said. “But we are young. We start almost all freshman and sophomores.”
Houck allowed just five hits, struck out five and improved her record this season to 31-5. And for the day, Herion broke out of her hitting slump, going 4-for-8 with three RBIs.
“It was bittersweet last year making it to the Super Regionals and not (advancing),” Herion said. “As a team we have so much postseason experience and I think that’s what showed in the end.”
West Chester’s last trip to the NCAA Elite Eight was back in 2014. No players from that team are still active, but Lokey was certainly there, and assistant coach Laura Altenburger was a valuable WCU player.
“We’ve both been there and we know what a special experience it is,” Lokey said. “We really wanted this group to experience it because we were so close last year.”