By Dylan Vazzano, TTU Sports Information Coordinator
EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – The Tennessee Tech softball team reached the pinnacle once again. For the seventh time in their illustrious history, the Golden Eagles are champions of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, holding on for a 3-2 victory in the championship game over host and top seed, SIU Edwardsville.
No. 4 Tech (32-26) caps off a magical run that saw the Golden Eagles go a perfect 4-0 in the tournament, including defeating No. 1 SIUE (43-16) twice in the span of three days to advance to the 2015 NCAA Tournament. TTU will find out when and where it's playing on Sunday as part of the NCAA Tournament selection show, slated to begin at 9 p.m. CT.
"I don't even know how to describe it," third-year head coach Bonnie Bynum, who ironically enough was a member of the team the last time Tech won the OVC Tournament and earned an NCAA bid. "I'm just so proud of the way we fought and the way we've battled all year long. We never thought we were going to lose for a minute and that's why we were able to run through the tournament like we did."
The formula tonight was simple, yet one that has proven to be effective time and time again for this year's Golden Eagle bunch. Sophomore Danielle Liberatore was her reliable and remarkable self from inside in the circle. The offense, which is now the only team in the OVC to belt 60 home runs, added two more to account for Tech's three runs. And even in the face of some late adversity, the Golden Eagles displayed their trademark resiliency in taking home the program's seventh conference crown.
Scoreless into the fourth, Tech found themselves without a hit after being controlled by the OVC Freshman of the Year in Baylee Douglass. Despite the squad's lack of early offense, TTU turned things around…doing so in rather quick and dramatic fashion.
Junior Sabrie Neeb led off the top of the fourth with a high majestic drive that easily cleared the left-field wall for her eighth home run of the season to break the scoreless deadlock. Two batters later after a walk to senior Hannah Eldridge, it was time for sophomore Alyssa Richards to get in on the long ball act, crushing a missile over the left center field wall for a two-run shot that extended the Tech lead to 3-0.
"I had the feeling that it was going to go when I hit it," Richards claimed on her 10th home run of the season. "I had to make the slight adjustment and just get barrel to ball. It felt great and it felt even better to be there for my teammates."
The three-run cushion was in good hands with the way Liberatore (19-11) was pitching, who overcame some early adversity in her own right in the first and second innings. SIUE put two on with two out in the first, before Liberatore wiggled out of the jam by inducing junior Rachel Keller on a foul pop to third. The escape was merely an appetizer for the main course that was the bottom of the second.
A leadoff single by senior Brittany Toney and a double by sophomore Whitney Lanphier put runners on at second and third with no one out. Cougar Field was ready to burst at the seams with excitement, but cool, calm and collected, Liberatore quelled the raucous atmosphere.
The 5-foot-10 southpaw recorded a strikeout and a pair of groundouts, wrangling out of the troublesome threat completely and utterly unscathed to keep the game scoreless.
Liberatore fed off the momentum-changing frame as the Peotone, Ill. native did not allow another hit until there was one out in the bottom of the sixth. In fact, it wasn't even until the bottom of the seventh that featured another Cougar rally.
In the final frame things got a little dicey, only adding to the drama of the championship finale. With two out and a runner on third, senior Rebecca Gray collected an infield single that plated junior Kelsey Hansen with the first SIUE run of the contest to chop the Tech lead to 3-1.
Sophomore Allison Smiley followed the single with one of her own, before an Alex McDavid run-scoring base hit to center brought the Cougars within a run. SIUE now possessed the tying run on second and the winning run at first with the chance at a TTU title hanging in the balance.
The magnitude of the moment didn't faze Liberatore a bit, and it was in fact a well timed conversation that helped the sophomore settle into the situation.
"I had Kelly [Kennedy] come out and just talk to me to calm me down," explained Liberatore, alluding to her sophomore battery mate, who came out of her crouch behind the dish just before Rachel Keller dug in. "After that, we just went after the next batter."
It worked. Liberatore got the 5-foot-5 first baseman to whiff on a changeup, sending the Golden Eagles soaring out of the first base dugout as champions of the Ohio Valley Conference.
"When we got the last batter it was almost surreal," Liberatore said. "I turned and looked, and saw everyone on running on the field, which was by far and away the best moment of my life."
When it was all said and done, Liberatore went the distance for the fourth time in the tournament. Her championship victory saw the southpaw give up two runs on seven hits, striking out nine in the process. Liberatore went all 27 tournament innings, posting a 4-0 record with 41 strikeouts in 27 innings to take home Tournament-MVP honors.
"Honestly, I've never seen her on that level before," said Bynum, whose club becomes the first Tech team to go undefeated in the OVC Tournament since 2006. "She was on a different level than even during the regular season. Danielle put the team on her back and we rode her all the way to this point. She did a heck of a job."
Liberatore was one of four Golden Eagles to earn All-Tournament accolades, joining sophomore Alyssa Richards, junior Olivia Bennett, and senior Hannah Eldridge.
Tech will now wait to see where and when they will play in the NCAA Tournament, finding its fate in Sunday evening's selection show. Tennessee Tech Athletics wants you to be a part of the festivities, inviting all fans to join the team in the Eagles Nest on the fourth floor of the Hooper Eblen Center. Doors will open at 8:30 p.m. CT, with the show beginning at 9 p.m. Snacks and refreshments will be provided.
The NCAA Regionals are set to begin May 14-17 on 16 different campus sites. Stay posted to ttusports.com as well as the Tech Athletics Facebook and Twitter for continuous updates on all things Golden Eagle softball.