Cooper gains MVP laurels as they down Western in LEC title game, 6-2
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MANSFIELD, Conn. - Junior third baseman Arielle Cooper (Mystic) had three hits - including her tenth home run of the season that highlighted a three-run third inning - as the Eastern Connecticut State University softball team claimed its third straight Little East Conference Tournament championship Saturday by defeating Western Connecticut State University, 6-2, in the first game of the championship round at the Eastern Softball Field.
Ranked No. 2 nationally, top-seeded Eastern (40-1) set a program season record for victories with its 39th straight triumph - 12th straight in the LEC tournament play the last three years. Eastern qualifies automatically for the NCAA tournament and will a host a regional tournament beginning Thursday.
At left: Tournament MVP Arielle Cooper accepts the award from LEC Commissioner Jonathan Harper.
Cooper's two-run home run in the third helped give senior All-America Molly Rathbun (Hebron) her 29th victory of the season (28 straight) against a loss. Rathbun has been the winning pitcher in the team's last 11 games. Rathbun pitched a six-hitter with seven strikeouts and the Warriors responded with ten hits off senior Magen Dargon of fifth-seeded Western, which won three games in the tournament after a 3-1 loss to No. 2 seed Keene State College.
Western (30-15), which needed to beat Eastern twice in order to capture its fourth tournament title, had advanced to the championship round by eliminating Keene State in six innings, 8-0, in the first game of the day. Senior shortstop Danielle Basciano, the two-time LEC Player-of-the-Year, drove in six runs in that game with two doubles and a triple and Dargon shut down Keene (25-10-1) on four hits with eight strikeouts.
Named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Cooper slammed her tenth home run of the season and 23rd of her career (second all-time to Rathbun for the career record and one shy of the season mark) in the three-run third, junior first baseman Kelly Paterson (Southington) blasted a two-run home run in the fourth out of the No. 9 slot in the lineup - her second of the season.
Western managed only one hit through the first five innings against Rathbun (a leadoff single by Basciano in the fourth), but broke through against Rathbun by collecting three of its hits. With two out, No. 3 hitter Jackie Zilnicki tripled in the first run and cleanup hitter Kylee Ruther plated Zilnicki with a double. Rathbun forced a comebacker to end the threat. Rathbun got two quick outs in the seventh and later stranded two runners with a tournament-ending popup to Paterson at first.
Cooper extended her program record hitting streak to 32 with three hits, with senior rightfielder Priscilla Alicea (Trumbull) - her collected her 200th career hit Friday -- and Paterson adding two hits each. Basciano (two hits) was the only Western batter with more than one hit.
Led by Cooper (.643), sophomore shortstop Megan Godwin (Manchester) (.500), Alicea (.462) and Paterson (.444), Eastern batted .423 in four tournament games and commited only two errors. Cooper drove in seven runs and scored six in the tournament and also handled ten chances at third base without an error. Sophomore centerfielder Mattie Brett (Waterford) hit two tournament home runs and led the Warriors with eight RBI, Rathbun driving in seven and scoring five runs.
Rathbun pitched all but two innings, throwing three complete games and two shutouts and giving up only 17 hits in 23 innings with 39 strikeouts and five walks. She was named tournament MVP as both a sophomore and junior.
Western's Zilnicki batted .467 in the tournament, with senior Kristin Ferrrante at .417 and Basciano .412. Basciano drove in seven runs (six against Keene Saturday) and Zilnicki four. Dargon was credited with all five decisions for the Colonials, compiling a 2.15 ERA in 29 1/3 innings with 33 strikeouts and nine walks.