Lehigh pulls off shocking upset of Aggies in regional
Lehigh's 4-3 upset of No.13 seed Texas A&M was the highlight of Friday's games in Amherst.
AMHERST, Mass. -- During the middle innings of Friday's opening game of the Amherst Regional between Massachusetts and Albany, a hawk soared gracefully over the outfield, eventually gliding to a stop atop the flagpole in center field.
And after pulling off a stunning 4-3 win in the damp air of Amherst, Lehigh may have rendered Texas A&M's title hopes nevermore.
Although they've dominated the Patriot League for years, including a 37-1 record in the conference the last two seasons, the Mountain Hawks had just a single NCAA tournament win in their history (against Seton Hall in 2001).
But after traveling to places like Nebraska and Arizona in past tournaments, Lehigh felt right at home playing in the Northeast.
"Was it wet and cold today?" Lehigh coach Fran Troyan joked when asked about the conditions in Amherst, which grew increasingly chilly and damp as dusk approached during the day's second game.
"We're a little different, not much," pitcher Kate Arico said of the team's mood compared to last season, when they were knocked out of the postseason following losses to Arizona and Princeton in the Tucson Regional. "We're still really excited to be here. The main difference is we tried to keep the focus on us and not get psyched out. This year, being on the East Coast really helped us out."
The Mountain Hawks helped themselves out early, jumping on Texas A&M ace Amanda Scarborough for two runs in the top of the first. Leadoff hitter Kate Marvel doubled down the line to open the game, followed by a strikeout by Lisa Sweeney and Lauren Haney reaching first after getting hit by a pitch. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch -- the first of several from Scarborough -- and scored when Julie Sterrett laced a two-out double on an 0-2 pitch.
"It built confidence for us, that we could go and play against them, and we were just as good," Marvel said of the early action.
Lehigh added a run in the second, courtesy of two hits, a wild pitch and a passed ball and a run in the fifth on another RBI double from Sterrett. Other than that, they turned things over to Arico in the circle.
That it was Arico, and not Patriot League Pitcher of the Year Sweeney, in the circle turned out to be a sage bit of strategy from Troyan.
"After kind of evaluating the Texas A&M hitters and learning what we could from them, we really thought that Kate could get us into the fifth or sixth inning if she pitched as well as she could possibly pitch," Troyan said. "Which is really what happened today, because Kate does a very good job of changing speeds."
For most of the first six innings, Arico, who issued just 13 walks in 143.1 innings entering the tournament, frustrated the Aggies with her control. Texas A&M eventually rallied for three runs in the bottom of the sixth, the last two coming on a towering home run to center from Megan Gibson, but Sweeney came on to shut the door in the seventh.
After the win, Troyan still offered the humility of a man whose program rarely has an opportunity to play in the national spotlight.
"Honestly, for a program like ours to even step on the field with a program like Jo Evans' Texas A&M program, that in and of itself is an honor," Troyan said. "And I couldn't be more proud of the kids in my program."
Saturday, Lehigh will have a chance to write an even better ending.
UMass 2, Albany 0
University of Massachusetts senior catcher KJ Kelley and the official rules teamed up to produce two first-inning runs for the Minutewomen in Friday's regional opener against the University of Albany, more than enough for the 2-0 win behind freshman ace Brandice Balschmiter's first career no-hitter.
Leadoff hitter Amanda Morin appeared to fly out to right field on a 3-2 count to open the game, but Halloran's first illegal pitch resulted in an automatic ball and a walk for Morin. After Candice Molinari popped out to the catcher for the first official out, Whitney Mollica followed with an apparent fly out to left. But a second illegal pitch from Halloran sent Morin to second and gave Mollica new life. Mollica eventually popped out for the second official out (and the fourth time an Albany player caught a ball off the bat of a UMass player), setting the stage for Kelley.
On a 1-0 pitch, the senior catcher drove a changeup on a line over the left field fence, appearing to clear it by only a couple of feet, giving the Minutewomen a 2-0 lead. After the game, Halloran thought it was more than good timing on Kelley's part.
"The girl on second knew what was coming and told the batter, and she hit it," Halloran said after the game, indicating Morin tipped off Kelley with a tap of the helmet.
For her part, Kelley admitted as much but said, "Whether you know [the pitch] or not, you still have to react to the pitch; you never know where it's coming."
With early runs on the board, the Minutewomen turned things over to Balschmiter, who owned a 28-7 record entering the game. Although not sharp early, throwing first-pitch strikes to just four of the first eight batters she faced and walking a pair in that span, she had good movement on her breaking balls and gave Albany few opportunities to do any damage.
"Part of it is finding the umpire's strike zone, find out what he's calling," Balschmiter said of her recent tendency to labor through the early innings of games.
But the freshman remained focused in her NCAA tournament debut, allowing just two additional walks in her final five innings. She was so focused, in fact, that she didn't even realize what she had just accomplished on the stat sheet.
"I honestly didn't even realize it was a no-hitter; I'm just glad we got the win," she said.
Next up for UMass is Lehigh, which stunned Texas A&M in the day's second game.
Freshman slugger Mollica, who made several nifty plays in the field and added a sacrifice bunt at the plate, summed up what it meant to Balschmiter and her to get the first game under their belts.
"It was unbelievable, just looking up at the stadium, how much of a rush it is to have it at home. But at the same time, it's just another game as we hope to advance."
Minutes after the game, Mollica was already focusing on helping out the pitching star.
"We just need to have a little bit better pitch selection. We played very good defense today [Kelley picked two runners off of first], so I think if we just do a little bit better job of hitting, we'll be great."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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