HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Pauline Tufi’s solo home run in the top of the 7th inning and Marilyn Rizzato’s defensive gem in the bottom half of the frame gave sophomore pitcher Krystal De La Cruz all the support she needed as Louisiana Tech defeated FIU 1-0 in the championship game of the 2017 Conference USA Tournament Saturday afternoon.
With the win, LA Tech (37-22) earned the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the program’s first since 2008 and 10th overall. FIU (45-13) will have to await the NCAA Committee to see if it will receive an at-large bid along with league champion Marshall.
“The senior leadership on this team is amazing, and I don’t want to take it away from them, but all of our players have been leaders,” said Tech head coach Mark Montgomery. “We preach that they all need to step up and be leaders. When it’s not one on one day, it’s another the next day. They all do a fantastic job at being there for each other, picking each other up and doing things the right way.”
The win by LA Tech was its first in 10 tries against FIU and erased any bad memories from dropping four games in the last eight days against the Panthers. In a game that pitted two of the top young arms in the league, it was one swing from Louisiana Tech’s senior first baseman that proved to be the difference.
FIU freshman Shannon Saile (C-USA Freshman of the Year) and De La Cruz (C-USA Newcomer of the Year) were phenomenal in the circle for the two teams. De La Cruz (13-3) held FIU to only two hits while Saile (19-9) limited the Lady Techsters to four hits. The last one was a game-changer.
With one out in the top of the seventh inning, Tufi sent Saile’s 1-1 offering deep over the centerfield fence to give the Lady Techsters the lead. It was Tufi’s eighth home run of the season – the 35th of her career — and it was only the ninth surrendered by Saile in almost 200 innings this season.
“After I passed first, I knew it was over the fence,” said Tufi. “I just looked up and thanked God for giving me the opportunity to give our team the lead and to become champs. And just give ourselves a chance. It wasn’t just that one hit, it took all of us to get to this game and this championship. Without every single one of them on this team, we wouldn’t be here.”
The home run gave Tech the lead, but the game was far from over. Plenty of drama – and maybe the defensive play of the year – still remained.
Trailing 1-0 and down to its final three outs, FIU appeared ready to answer when senior third baseman Sammi Green drilled a full-count pitch to the right centerfield gap for a leadoff standup double.
Enter Tech freshman catcher Marilyn Rizzato.
With the tying run on second and no outs, FIU catcher Julia Gilbert attempted to lay down a sacrifice bunt. However, the bunt popped up into the air behind home plate. Rizzato sprinted towards the backstop and made a diving catch, crashing into the padding.
Still lying on her back off balance, Rizzato tossed the ball sidearm towards third base knowing Green might try to tag and advance. Her where-with-all was right. Tech third baseman Berkley Calapp picked up the ball rolling towards third and fired a strike to centerfielder Tori Charters who was covering second base. Charters applied the tag on Green to complete the double play.
The bases were empty, as was FIU’s “proverbial” gas tank.
With two outs, De La Cruz struck out Brianna Bahadue looking for the final out as the Lady Techsters erupted into a wild celebration on the field.
“We had mental hiccups during the season, but this is the most confident, most mentally prepared we have been all year,” said Charters, who hit .571 (8-14) for the tournament. “We took what we knew, and we shook the ground with it. We lost to FIU four times, but we learned from each loss. We were mentally prepared for Sailes.”
De La Cruz needed only 93 pitches to record the complete-game shutout. FIU’s biggest threat against the lefty came in the bottom of the fourth inning when two walks and a hit by pitch loaded the bases with two outs in a scoreless game. However, De La Cruz struck out FIU pinch hitter Jocelin Soto swinging to end the threat.
“The passion, the energy, the we-got-this mentality was all there,” said senior catcher Natalie Moran. “No previous games mattered. We gave everything we had and that was enough.”
Charters (2-2, walk) and Tufi (2-3, HR, 2B) combined for the only four hits in the game for the Lady Techsters.
Tufi picked up the MVP trophy after going 6-of-14 at the plate with four doubles, one home run and six RBI in the five games. Charters joined Karlee Jensen (6-of-15) and De La Cruz (3-0, 0.37 ERA) on the all-tournament team.
The NCAA selection show will air Sunday night at 9 p.m. on ESPN2. A Selection Show party will be held in the club level of the Davison Athletics Complex and all LA Tech fans are invited to attend.