There's an old saying in baseball and softball that says good pitching will beat good hitting, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball team proved its truth Saturday afternoon in Greensboro, N.C.
The Lady Mocs (34-19) capped an unbeaten run through the Southern Conference tournament with a 4-3 win over tourney host UNC Greensboro to capture the program's first tournament crown and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament since 2011.
UTC survived a 30-minute lightning delay in the sixth inning and a late rally attempt by the Spartans to win the title after finishing second behind Georgia Southern in the regular-season standings.
UTC coach Frank Reed expressed his fondness for the team before the tournament began, and he said he was happy to see the Lady Mocs return to the top following a disappointing 2013 season in which the team finished with a losing record for the first time since the inaugural season in 1994.
"I can't put it into words," Reed said by phone following the game. "I told them during the storm break, 'I'm not ready to let you guys go. We need to play some more softball games, so let's go out and finish this up.'
"We made it look hard, but this is a tremendous group of young ladies. They've worked hard and set goals and worked toward them. Sometimes they'd take two steps forward and get knocked back three, but they kept plugging, and this was a big reward for them today."
Sophomore pitcher Katie Henderson pitched in and out of trouble over 5 2/3 innings, starting and ending the game with junior Taylor Deason pitching well for an inning and a third in the middle of the game. Deason was credited with the win, while Henderson picked up the save to secure the championshp.
"Honestly, I was a little bitter about the season, because I felt there were so many shortcomings," Henderson said. "I was just taking that frustration into the tournament and using that as motivation to make a statement and let everyone know that Chattanooga is the best.
"I think the whole team did a great job. We pitched well, we hit well and we played defense well, and I think that was the key to getting all the victories this week."
Henderson, a former Silverdale Baptist Academy standout and transfer from Kentucky, was named the tournament's most outstanding player with wins in the first three games of the tournament and the save Saturday. She had 32 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings, and UNCG's two earned runs in the final were the only runs she allowed for the tournament.
Henderson and Deason combined for a 0.50 ERA for the four games.
UTC freshman Jesslyn Stockard gave the Lady Mocs the early lead with an opposite-field two-run home run off Raeanne Hanks in the second inning.
"It's always important to be aware of what you're supposed to do when you're at bat," said the former Heritage High School player who had three RBIs in the game. "My job was to move the runner, and that was all I could think about to do my job.
"I think it just helped me kind of relax, and I'm really glad I was able to put a couple of runs on the board to get us going."
The Spartans came into the game with the best offense in the conference, and they threatened to score on several occasions. But Henderson and the UTC defense allowed only single runs in the third, fifth and sixth innings. The Spartans stranded 12 runners, including leaving the bases loaded in the second and third innings.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came in the third inning. Lindsay Thomas led off with a home run for UNCG, which then loaded the bases with one out and UTC clinging to a 2-1 lead.
Henderson got Hagan Kiser to pop out for the second out, but Tory Wright laced a pitch into left field that appeared to be destined to drop in for a hit and at least two runs. As the ball fell toward the turf, Nicole Osterman raced in and made a diving catch to end the inning and preserve the lead.
"So many people expressed concern about why Nikki didn't make the all-tournament team," Reed said. "She made that catch, and there were some games that we don't win without her.
"It's unfortunate that she didn't make [all-tournament], but it goes back to her unselfishness, and it was special to see her make the catch for the final out of the game."
Alyssa Taylor finished 3-for-4 with a run for UTC, and Stockard and Criket Blanco each had two hits. Henderson, Stockard, Sarah Beth Roberts and Sam Taylor were named to the all-tournament team.
The Lady Mocs will find out where they will head for an NCAA tournament regional tonight at 10. The team will gather with fans at Buffalo Wild Wings downtown to watch the selection show on ESPNU.
This will be the first trip to the NCAA tournament for everyone on the team except four-year seniors Kaiti Dutton and Stephanie Rieck, but returning to the top of the SoCon has been a goal for the entire team.
"Even in the beginning of the season, our goal was to bring [the title] back to Chattanooga," Stockard said. "Going in, we knew we could do it. Every team we played was a small victory and a stepping stone to get to the championship game."
"We really came together as a team and really worked so hard this season, and we deserve it."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.