- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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AMHERST, Mass. -- One terrific story came to an end in Amherst on Sunday afternoon, as the University of Massachusetts ended Lehigh's surprising NCAA Tournament run with a 3-0 win. The victory, however, allowed UMass coach Elaine Sortino's team to add another chapter in the story it has been crafting all season.
With the win, UMass moves on to face Northwestern in next weekend's super regional. The trip to Evanston, Ill., will be the Minutewomen's first foray beyond the regional round since advancing to the College World Series in 1998 (the super-regional round was added to the softball tournament last season).
Massachusetts leadoff hitter Amanda Morin ensured there would be no repeat of Saturday's marathon streak of scoreless innings against Lehigh (the Minutewomen won 6-4 in 10 innings after both teams failed to score in the game's first seven innings), sending Lisa Sweeney's fourth pitch soaring over the wall in right field.
As it turned out, that would be all the offense UMass needed behind freshman ace Brandice Balschmiter, although Lesley Ferrara added an RBI double in the fourth and KJ Kelley closed the scoring with an RBI single in the fifth.
Balschmiter didn't allow her first hit until the sixth inning. Amazingly, that was the earliest she had allowed a hit in any of her three starts in this weekend's regional. After striking out 13 in Saturday's win but walking five, she was more economical in Sunday's win, striking out just two and walking one while allowing the terrific movement on her pitches to jam Lehigh hitters into 17 ground-ball outs.
Lehigh mounted its best challenge in the top of the fourth, loading the bases on a walk and two tough plays for third baseman Whitney Mollica. On the first, Mollica fielded a sacrifice bunt, but was late trying to force the lead runner at second base. And playing in to cover a bunt from the next batter, Mollica was unable to get a handle on a hard grounder in time to make a throw.
But even if the actual ball of gas didn't make an extended appearance on another wet and chilly day in Amherst, the proverbial sun was shining on the Minutewomen.
A hard shot off the bat of Julie Sterrett, Lehigh's top hitter, went directly to Mollica, who gloved it before tagging third for the second out and throwing to second baseman Kristi Stefanoni for a triple play.
"Sometimes when I make a mistake like that, I always hope the next ball will come to me so I can make up for it," Mollica said. "I've never been in anything like that in my entire life."
As far as Sortino could recall, it was the program's first triple play.
Lehigh coach Fran Troyan could only smile sadly after the game, adding wryly, "A triple play, as you guys know, takes you out of an inning."
Rally stalled, the Mountain Hawks were unable to advance a runner beyond first base in the final three innings. Fittingly, Mollica fielded the final ball off a Lehigh bat, throwing out Lisa Sweeney to end the game.
UMass and Northwestern met earlier in the season, a 7-2 UMass loss in the Minutewomen's sixth game of the season (the game also marked the end of a rigorous three-game stretch against UCLA, Cal and Northwestern).
And while both teams presumably improved over the course of the season, Balschmiter's development makes it difficult to read much into the early-season encounter.
Said Sortino, "The good part about going out early and playing against some of these big, monster teams is that you see them, [the players] know what to expect and it's not a mystery."
Having defended their home turf with a regional win, the Minutewomen are ready to take the show on the road.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
One terrific story came to an end in Amherst on Sunday afternoon, as the University of Massachusetts ended Lehigh's surprising NCAA Tournament run with a 3-0 win.