by Sean Begin
When the two teams tied for the top in the Northeast Conference met on the diamond Sunday, the opportunity was there for someone to emerge as the sole leader.
But after dropping the first game 2-0 and winning the second 3-0, Central Connecticut (28-9) and Robert Morris (24-20) remained tied for first, each team sporting a 12-2 record in conference play.
“I think that’s a perfect example of our conference, it’s so evenly matched, every team is so good,” said acting head coach Breanne Gleason. “Nicole [Sleith] is a great pitcher. She’s a strikeout pitcher, she’s a ground ball pitcher, she’s everything.”
Sleith held Central to just four hits in the game one shutout victory, striking out eight. Senior Laura Messina matched Sleith’s eight K’s and four hits allowed, but two sailed over the outfield fence courtesy of RMU’s Tess Apke.
The Blue Devils got to Sleith early in game two, giving Messina a 2-0 lead she would never relinquish.
After an Ashley Black bunt single and a throwing error by RMU’s shortstop, junior Eileen Purcell tripled to the right field corner, plating Black and senior Kat Malcolm. Purcell would deliver an unnecessary insurance run with two outs in the third, when she deposited a Sleith pitch over the left field wall.
“We all laugh because Eileen used to hate to hit,” said Gleason. “When she fields, she’s in such a good mood, and then when we do [batting practice], she’s not as happy. But this year she told us she was going to fake being happy during hitting so maybe she would like it more, and I think she’s starting to like it more after today.”
Purcell seems to have found her stride at the plate for more than just Sunday’s game. She’s been one of Central’s best hitters all season. She’s second on the team in RBIs (24) and third in home runs (4), average (.281) and slugging percentage (.447) while hitting in the cleanup spot this year.
“She’s a good person to put into that fourth slot because she’s really good with tough pitches,” said Gleason. “As a pitcher you’re going to throw your best stuff against 3-4-5, and she does a good job with tough pitches.”
The third-inning home run was the second of the weekend for Purcell. She sent one over the wall in the second game against St. Francis (Pa.) on Saturday that plated two in a 6-0 Central victory. Like Sunday’s game two, Purcell finished that game with 3 RBIs and added a fourth in the 5-0 game one win. Purcell finished the weekend 4-for-10 with 7 RBIs, 2 home runs and a triple.
Sunday’s game one was the only rough spot in an otherwise polished weekend in the circle for Messina. Over 28 innings, she allowed just 16 hits and gave up only four walks, good for a 0.714 WHIP (walks/hits per inning pitched). She struck out 23 and allowed just the two runs on Sunday.
The three shutouts give Messina 15 on the season to lead the nation. Coming into the weekend, her 0.91 ERA was good for third in the country, but after lowering it to 0.85 with her performance this weekend, she could jump into second.
Despite the implications of Sunday’s series against Robert Morris, Central was focused heading into Saturday’s games against St. Francis (Pa.), according the Gleason and as evidenced by the outcome.
“If you overlook a team in this conference, you’re going to drop a game, maybe two,” said Gleason. “So we were really focused on St. Francis, then after the game, we started to focus on Robert Morris but we talked about both teams all week.”
Central finishes the season with a game at Quinnipiac on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. and a double-header at LIU-Brooklyn on May 2 at 1 p.m. to wrap up conference play. Regardless of the outcome of that last series, Central has clinched a spot in the NEC tournament that will start May 7 at either Robert Morris or home in New Britain.