TYLER, TX - Junior Allyson Fournier pitched a six-hit shutout and sophomore SS Christina Raso drove home three runs as the Tufts University softball team won its second straight NCAA championship today with a 6-0 victory against Salisbury at the University of Texas-Tyler.
The Jumbos (47-4) become the first NCAA Division III softball team to win back-to-back titles since St. Thomas (MN) did it in 2004-05. In the best out of three series to determine the 2014 NCAA champion, head coach Cheryl Milligan's Jumbos had lost 2-1 in game one on Monday. However, they rallied to win two straight to capture the title including a dramatic 14-inning, 6-0 victory in game two on Monday.
"It's amazing," Coach Milligan said. "We lost yesterday and it had been a long time since our last loss. We didn't feel too hot, but we pulled game two out in the wee hours last night. Then to come back today on fire, really ready to go is a testament to this team's spirit and their drive and how hard they worked for this."
Fournier, who shared Most Outstanding Player honors with senior catcher Jo Clair, pitched 24 straight shutout innings in the championship series against the Sea Gulls. The stretch began in the fifth inning of game one, went through all 14 innings of game two and finished with today's shutout. She struck out five and walked one in the championship game while improving her final season record to 28-1.
"Whenever I get the ball I just go out there and do the best that I can, try to get every batter and take it pitch by pitch," Fournier said. "It's just an honor to be able to play at this stage against such great competition, but to win two years in a row is an unreal feeling."
Raso, the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year, led with her bat in the championship game by driving home runs in two separate innings as the Jumbos built their lead. Senior LF Sara Hedtler also concluded an excellent series by going 2 for 4 with an rbi in today's game. Junior CF Michelle Cooprider scored twice while finishing the game 3 for 4.
While Tufts was building its 6-0 lead in the first three innings, Salisbury had sent just one batter above the minimum to the plate through four innings. Sophomore Paige Knussman singled to lead off the second, but was doubled off first on a line drive. Senior pitcher Kathryn Larson singled with two outs in the third.
Unlike game two when Tufts didn't score until the 14th inning, the Jumbos put two on the board early today with a two-out rally in the second. Cooprider singled to right to get it started and first-year RF Carrie Copacino followed with a walk. Raso's single up the middle scored Cooprider and sent Copacino to third. Hedtler followed with an infield single scoring Copacino and it was 2-0 Jumbos.
The Jumbo bats continued to produce in the third. Clair, who had been walked intentionally/unintentionlly five times in game two, led off with a single to right-center. First-year DP Cassie Ruscz, game two's offensive hero with a two-run double to start the six-run 14th inning, followed with another double scoring Clair. Junior 2B Gracie Marshall got a base hit through the left side to bring Ruscz around and the Jumbos led 4-0.
Salisbury switched pitchers, bringing on Larson. However, the Jumbos continued the inning as Cooprider added a single, a passed ball put runners on second and third and Raso lined a two-run single to right-center making it 6-0 Tufts.
"One of the things that we've done really well over the course of the season is adjust," Coach Milligan said. "Day to day we have been great at making adjustments. After yesterday, we talked about the pitchers that we would see today. We talked about how we were not dealing with them very well and how we could. We went to sleep on that, got up this morning, took some BP, and made some great adjustments. We had some players who really struggled yesterday have really great days at the plate today."
From there, Fournier was in charge. Singles by junior catcher Rebecca Hoey and junior RF Angela Malgieri gave Salisbury runners on first and second with one out in the fifth, but Fournier struck out the next two batters looking to end the threat.
A walk to Malgieri and a double high off the fence by sophomore 2B Molly Simpson put Salisbury runners on second and third with two outs in the bottom of the seventh. Fournier struck out Larson looking to clinch Tufts' second straight title. The shutout was her 14th of the season.
Junior Rachel Johnson took the loss for Salisbury (44-5), allowing seven hits and five runs with two strikeouts and a walk in two innings pitched. Larson went five innings giving up five hits and a run with six strikeouts and no walks during her relief stint.
Clair, walked eight times in the NCAA Finals out of respect for the ferocious bat she wielded this spring, hit .412 (7/17) with four home runs, eight rbis and seven runs scored when they did pitcher to her. With her four home runs in Texas, she finished the season with 24 to tie for the second-most in NCAA Div. III history. She finished her Tufts career with 67 home runs, third on the all-time Division III list.
"It can't get any sweeter than this, to end a career on the highest note you can possibly end it on," Clair said.
Fournier, in addition to earning all five Tufts wins, posted a 0.76 earned run average during the tournament allowing five earned runs in 46 innings. She struck out 39 and walked nine.
Ruscz and Raso were named to the All-Tournament team. Ruscz hit .400 (10/25) with three home runs, eight rbis and five runs scored. Raso led Tufts regulars in hitting for the six games at .429 (9/21) including her leading performance in the championship game.
The win gave the 2014 Tufts team a new school record for victories in a season with 47. Tufts was making its third straight appearance in the NCAA Finals. They won the title in Eau Claire, Wisconsin last season with a 6-5 win against Cortland. With their 5-1 record in Texas since Thursday to win the title, Tufts now has 47-25 all-time record in NCAA play.
This was their 14th NCAA apperance overall. They became the seventh NCAA Div. III program to win multiple NCAA titles, and the second from New England. They are just the third team to win back-to-back titles, including Eastern Connecticut in 1985-86.
The talk of repeating started right after the 2013 season, when Coach Milligan and Fournier were in Los Angeles last June. Fournier was receiving the Honda Sports Award as NCAA Division III Athlete of the Year.
"We started saying everybody who has won a national championship has one national championship ring. The only thing to do is go get another one," Coach Milligan said. "Set the next level of the ladder and go attain it.
"We're going to go home, probably take a couple days off," she continued, "and start thinking about next year."
Game Photos by Alonso Nichols / Tufts