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NCAA Softball: It's Great to be Alive!

After Friday loss, Warriors respond with two elimination victorieshuddle72dpi_2495.jpg

Photos by Marissa Malouf


At left: Molly Rathbun

WATCH: Post-game interviews with head coach Diana Pepin and pitcher Molly Rathbun.

MANSFIELD, Conn. -  Under normal circumstances, it would have been a day to celebrate a number of personal season and career achievements Saturday  for the Eastern Connecticut State University softball program.

Instead, it was a day to celebrate two elimination game victories that kept the Warriors alive in the NCAA Division III Mansfield, Conn. Regional Tournament at the Eastern Softball Field.

After losing its first game in nearly two months Friday in a winners' bracket game of the tournament to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy,  Eastern (43-2) outslugged and outpitched the University of Rochester (6-1) and Ithaca College (6-0) to move into the losers' bracket final and a return engagement against Coast Guard (28-18) Sunday at noon.

In order to qualify for the national tournament in three consecutive seasons for the first time in 20 years, the second-seeded Warriors must beat Coast Guard, then down No. 2 seed Tufts (39-5), the tourney's lone unbeaten twice. The first game of the championship round will be played Sunday at 2:30 p.m., and a second, winner-take-all showdown Monday at noon.

For Eastern to win the tournament - for a crack at a sixth national championship --  it would need to win a total of six games in the tournament. For Tufts to advance to next week's national tournament at Salem, VA, the Jumbos would need four. Tufts advanced to the championship round with a 3-0 victory over Coast Guard in a winners' bracket game Saturday afternoon.

While the day was filled with milestones - 11th-year head coach Diana Pepin taking over as the program's all-time winningest coach with 285 wins, senior All-America pitcher Molly Rathbun (Hebron) breaking her own season records with her 31st win and 306th strikeout, and junior Arielle Cooper (Mystic) tying season mark of 11 home runs - they took a backseat to the team's ability to bounce back from its first loss since March 19 and remain as one of three remaining teams in the original tournament field of eight.

Against  third-seeded Rochester and fourth-seeded Ithaca, the Warriors collected 20 hits and commited only two errors. For her part, Rathbun won her 101st and 102nd career games by allowing only nine hits in 14 innings, fanning 27 and walking three. She stopped Rochester (29-15) on three hits with 15 strikeouts in the morning, then turned back Ithaca with a six-hitter and 12 strikeouts - her 17th game this year with at least ten punchouts - at night.

Eastern erased a 1-0 first-inning deficit against the Yellowjackets with four runs in the fourth on four hits and an error. Senior Priscilla Alicea (Stratford), Rathbun, sophomore Megan Godwin (Manchester) and sophomore Stephanie Johnson (Southington) all singled in the inning, and Godwin, sophomore Mattie Brett  (Waterford), Johnson and pinch hitter Sam Rossetti (Shelton) all drove in runs. Godwin contributed two hits and two RBI in the win.

Against Ithaca, Rathbun tossed her 15th shutout of the season and Cooper had two hits and two RBI, tying the season record for home runs with a solo blast leading off the third that made it 3-0. It marked the 24th career home run for Cooper, who trails only Rathbun (27) in that category.

Brett's two-run, two-out double gave the Warriors a quick lead in the top of the first, and after Cooper homered in the third, the Warriors made it 5-0 by scoring two runs in the fourth after there were two out and none on on three hits and a walk.. No. 9 hitter Kelly Paterson (Southington) ignited the rally with a single, and Alicea followed with a walk, and both eventually scored (Courtney Weber (Groton), running for Paterson, scored the run) on RBI singles by Rathbun and Cooper.

Led by Brett (three RBI), eight different players drove in runs on the day, with Paterson, Johnson, Cooper and Rathbun all chipping in three hits each.


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