It's probably not Emma Sturdivant's accessory of choice, but the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior first baseman will never turn down a chance to don her softball team's coveted "Home Run Chain."
Sturdivant went 3-for-3 with a double, a two-run homer and four RBIs on Wednesday at Jim Frost Stadium, helping the Mocs rally to beat Furman 9-5 in the first round of the Southern Conference tournament.
No. 3 seed UTC (34-14) will face seventh-seeded Western Carolina (21-30) in the second round, with the first pitch tentatively at 2 p.m. Thursday. With rain in the forecast, the day's games have been moved up an hour earlier than previously scheduled, with the first losers-bracket game now at 9 a.m.
In other first-round games Wednesday at Frost, fifth-seeded East Tennessee State University defeated No. 4 seed Mercer 5-1 and Western Carolina rallied for four runs in the seventh inning to upset No. 2 seed Samford 6-4. Top-seeded UNC Greensboro is set to take on ETSU in the winners bracket after Thursday's Samford-Furman matchup, and two games are scheduled to follow UTC-Western Carolina, weather permitting.
UTC trailed Furman 4-0 after 2 1/2 innings, but Sturdivant's round-tripper to left field with Aly Walker on in the bottom of the third tied the game and was part of eight consecutive runs for UTC after a slow start. The chain was soon draped around Sturdivant's neck.
"You get crowned with the Home Run Chain every single time you come across home plate (after hitting a homer). You have no choice," Sturdivant said with a smile. "When they went up 4-0, we got a bigger sense of urgency. I definitely wasn't swinging for the fences, but I got it."
The runs were needed after a rare off start by junior Celie Hudson. The SoCon pitcher of the year, she was pulled after allowing the four runs on four hits, including a two-run homer by league player of the year Marissa Guimbarda, in the third inning. Taylor Vahle's ground-rule double drove in Furman's other two runs in the third.
Ali Swinford came on in relief and allowed one run on four hits with seven strikeouts. The Dalton High School graduate also earned coach Frank Reed's praise.
"Having to pull our conference pitcher of the year was tough, but I felt good bringing Ali in," Reed said of the crafty sophomore. "She struggled with a couple of injuries last year, but she's pitched really well in spots coming off the bench. She's coming off a shutout against Samford, so I had all the confidence in the world in her.
"Our focus today, and we talked about it all year, the team won today. If we lose, the team loses, but whatever happens, we do it together. We've got bench players who are playing big roles for us, and time and time again they help us. It's even bigger this time of the year."
Hayleigh Weissenbach's sacrifice fly that drove in Alyssa Coppinger — she had reached on an outfield error, going all the way to second before later advancing to third on Emily Coltharp's single — started the scoring for UTC. Walker followed with a double that drove in Coltharp, setting up Sturdivant's homer.
The Paladins (13-37) came unglued defensively in the fourth. After Katie Corum led off with a single, Devan Brown's sacrifice bunt was misplayed, with pinch-runner Taylor Chadwick taking third. Coppinger then reached on another infield error, scoring one.
Furman pitcher Emily DeMonte retired the next two batters before Walker's popup was dropped, scoring two more. Sturdivant followed with a clean RBI double for an 8-4 lead. Sturdivant's final RBI came on her sixth-inning single that brought home Weissenbach, who had a leadoff triple.
Swinford used a devastating changeup to get out of trouble in three of her innings. She stranded runners on first and third in the fourth by getting Tess Griswold on a 3-2 change, then left the bases loaded in the fifth after Taylor Vahle's solo homer cut the lead to three. The final out was another 3-2 changeup that caught Mackensie Greico looking.
"It's so crazy. I had a little struggle with my changeup a while ago, but last weekend it really started working and today it was my go-to," Swinford said. "It messes them up when you catch them a couple of times with it, and I definitely messed them up today."