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By Derek Turner
The first road trip of the Central Connecticut softball season was a success, as the Blue Devils return to New Britain with a 2-3 record.
Central played its first five games of the season against teams who had at least nine games under their belt, heading into the University of South Florida Under Armour Invitational.
“For us to go down there and compete first weekend out I’m certainly pleased with our effort,” said Head Coach Jeff Franquet. “I have zero complaints, we just have to sure up some things.”
CCSU dropped game one versus Georgia State 3-1. Laura Messina got the start and went the distance, giving up three earned runs, but struck out eight. Central’s freshman catcher Hannah Cooper drove in the first run of the season in the bottom of the fourth with a double to left field. Brittany Ernst, who pinch ran for Nicole Springer, scored from first.
The next half inning, Messina allowed the first two runners to reach base and the third batter hit a homerun out to left.
Just a few hours later the Blue Devils played Stephen F. Austin; senior Jordan Tingley got the start. The Jacks jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first and would extend their lead to 3-0 in the top of the fourth, but CCSU answered in the bottom of the inning with two runs of their own when junior Arielle Bruno doubled to lead off the inning and freshman Evie Rentzal bunted for a base hit, moving Bruno to third.
Cooper knocked both runs in on a single to left field.
The Central offense exploded for six runs in the sixth, led by home runs from sophomore Kat Malcolm and Cooper, the first of her career.
“She handled it pretty well for the first time out. She had a great weekend,” said Franquet on his freshman catcher. “Catching at the division one level is not an easy thing: she threw out a lot of runners trying to steal against her and she has one of the strongest arms, if not the strongest arm in the conference.”
Springer came in to close out the game in the seventh and allowed one run, but the Blue Devils came away with their first win of the season 8-4.
Eastern Kentucky entered the tournament with a 7-2 record, the best of the five teams CCSU played. The two teams matched up Saturday morning with the Colonels coming away with a 6-1 victory. Central’s lone run came in the top of the fifth when junior Tessa Brown led off the inning with a single. Senior Sarah Emery pinch ran for Brown, stole second and scored when freshman Eileen Purcell doubled to center field.
If there was a game the Blue Devils wish they could have back, it would be the 3-2 loss to Illinois-Chicago on Saturday afternoon. Messina gave up 10 hits and two walks, but the third run in the bottom of the eighth giving the Flames a walk-off win was the killer.
Illinois-Chicago scored one in the first and one in the fourth off a home run; Central came back with two in the sixth. Bruno doubled to begin the inning and with one out, Springer blasted the game-tying home run.
“Nicole Springer had an amazing weekend. If she made four out all weekend, those four balls were crushed right at people for outs,” said Franquet. “The two home runs she hit were in the grounds of 280 feet or more; they were absolute bombs.”
The rules state that once a softball game enters extra innings, each team starts with a runner at second base to ensure a quicker resolution.
Bruno began the eighth inning on second base, then advanced to third on a Malcolm sacrifice bunt. Springer lined out hard to center field, but Bruno was cut down at the plate 8-5-2 to end the inning.
Illinois-Chicago scored the winning run when their extra-innings runner advanced to third on an error and scored on a single.
The final game of the weekend ended in the first shutout by the Blue Devils, a 4-0 victory over Loyola-Marymount.
Ashley Black got the offense going in the third when she singled and advanced to second on a bunt by freshman Kenya McVey. Malcolm singled in Black for the first run of the game.
Cooper singled with one out in the fourth and advanced to second on a groundout and third on an error. She finally scored when Kelsey Barlow singled.
In the top of the fifth, Malcolm singled with one out and Springer followed with a home run, her second of the weekend. Messina earned her first win of the season.
At times this past weekend, the Blue Devils had five freshmen on the field at once. Franquet says Rentzel has solidified the left field position. McVey was at shortstop; Purcell was at third base and Cooper catching.
Springer paced the offense with a .412 average through the first five games, including two home runs and four runs batted in. Brown finished the weekend with seven hits in 16 at-bats with a double.
Messina begins the season with a 1-2 record, but already has 18 strikeouts in 21 ⅓ innings.
“The month of March is basically spring training to get ready for conference,” said Franquet. “The moral is great, the energy’s fantastic, the players are understanding their roles; it should be a pretty good year.”
Central leaves Thursday for two games against Coppin St. before the Hampton Tournament on March 8 and 9 where they will play Canisius, Hampton, Siena and Maryland-East Shore before returning home March 13 for a double-header versus Hartford.