By CHASE GORSKI
As the Sea Gulls (21-19) left the field for the final time in the 2017 season on Saturday, much was left to be desired.
SU came into their double-header finale against the Catholic University of America (24-12) following an early exit from the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) Tournament with losses in their first two games. Their 0-2 performance in the conference playoffs effectively ended their postseason, finishing the Gulls’ streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances at eight.
The Sea Gulls had an opportunity to rebound and end their season in the win column with a non-conference doubleheader against CUA. But the Cardinals proved to be too much, as they defeated the Sea Gulls in both games.
Game One: Salisbury 5, Catholic 6
What turned out to be a back-and-forth thriller in the late innings began as a pitcher’s duel between Sea Gulls junior Rachel Milligan and Cardinals freshman Claire Sturek. Both pitchers registered quick outs in their first two innings, allowing only two hits between them.
It was not until the bottom of the third that Salisbury broke through onto the scoreboard.
With one out, both junior right fielder LeAnne Collins and first baseman Kristen Yanarella reached base on back-to-back singles.
Sturek got senior centerfielder Caitlin Lake to ground into a fielder’s choice, where the third baseman forced an out at third, leaving runners on first and second with two outs. But Sturek did not make it out of the inning cleanly, as Salisbury’s RBI leader stepped to the plate to break the tie.
Junior second baseman Annie Pietanza drove an RBI-single into left field to put the Gulls up by one, and Lake would later score on a wild pitch before the inning ended, giving SU a 2-0 lead.
In the top of the fourth, Milligan was able to work out of a jam, continuing her dominant game by stranding runners on first and third.
The offense gave Milligan an extra insurance run in the bottom of the fourth in the form of an RBI-single from Collins, scoring freshman catcher Emily Allen. But the Sea Gulls did not capitalize with runners in scoring position, leaving two runners on with a 3-0 lead.
It was in the top of the fifth that things went south for Milligan. After a four-pitch walk put a runner on first, Catholic strung together three-straight singles bringing in two runs and ending Milligan’s outing.
SU head coach Margie Knight made a call to the bullpen to bring sophomore Shannon Powell to the circle to try and limit the damage. But the Cardinals were not finished yet, as junior centerfielder Rachel Valdes drove in the game-tying run with an RBI-groundout.
After a quiet bottom of the fifth for Salisbury, Catholic went back to work in the sixth against Powell. After allowing a lead-off single and hitting the next batter, errors began to plague the Gulls.
A throwing error by sophomore third baseman Amelia Trotter allowed CUA sophomore right fielder Rebecca Marks to reach safely with an RBI, giving Catholic a 4-3 lead. Senior third baseman Erin Adams followed suit with a two RBI-single before Powell escaped the jam, giving the Cardinals a 6-3 lead.
Salisbury had the chance for a comeback after chasing Sturek from the game in the bottom half of the sixth with a lead-off single from Trotter.
Catholic head coach Bruce McConkey made the call to the bullpen for another freshman in Sabrina Scott. But nerves seemed to play a role for the young standout who struggled in her relief appearance.
After the Sea Gulls loaded the bases with two outs, Scott threw two wild pitches in a row, allowing SU to cut the deficit to one. Coach McConkey had seen enough, as he came out to remove Scott and made his second bullpen call of the inning, bringing in sophomore Kelly Lynch.
Lynch, facing one of Salisbury’s most dangerous hitters in Pietanza with the tying run on third, induced an inning-ending pop fly to left field to maintain the lead.
The only action seen in the bottom of the seventh was a single by Emily Allen, which was too little too late as Lynch shut the door on the first game, giving the Cardinals the victory.
Allen, alongside Collins, helped to lead the offense in game one with two hits and a run scored, adding to her already impressive freshman season. With a .283 batting average on the year, Allen tied for the team-high with seven homeruns while also collecting All-CAC Second Team honors earlier this week.
“I didn’t come in thinking I was going to do anything. . .I started off behind other girls in the beginning of the season,” Allen said. “It was a lot of hard work and the support of my teammates.”
Game Two: Salisbury 0, Catholic 4
Runs came at a premium in the second game of Salisbury’s season finale doubleheader with two solid pitching performances on both sides of the field. SU sophomore Brooke Mizelle got the nod from coach Knight, but struggled right off the bat.
Mizelle dug herself into a hole in the top of the first, walking the first batter and surrendering back-to-back singles which gave Catholic an early 2-0 lead. But Mizelle settled into a groove after a rough first inning.
“The key was to find the umpire’s strike zone, even though it was still hard finding that,” Mizelle said. “I also had to let my defense work.”
Mizelle did exactly that in the remainder of the game, throwing 129 pitches in her seven-inning outing and only allowing two runs after the first inning, keeping Salisbury within reach. But the offense ran into an unstoppable force against Catholic’s sophomore starter Kelly Lynch.
Lynch, who recorded the save in game one, was able to do what no other pitcher has done this season against the Sea Gull offense; shut them out.
As the Cardinals’ ace, Lynch held one of the lowest ERAs in the Landmark Conference at 1.72 going into game two, and she used that second game to improve her 2017 resume, lowering that ERA to 1.62. The sophomore scattered five hits along seven innings, without giving up a single run in her complete game.
The Gulls’ best chance came in the bottom of the sixth. After Collins drew a walk, freshman designated player Brooke Yerger doubled down the left field line, putting two runners in scoring position with no outs. But just when the momentum seemed to shift towards the home team, Lynch recorded three-straight outs, facing the heart of Salisbury’s lineup to end the inning, stranding the two on second and third.
“[Lynch] pitched a really good game, kept us off-balance and kept our big hitters from making solid contact,” coach Knight said.
SU went quietly in the bottom half of the seventh, bringing an end to their 2017 season. While it was a disappointing end, the future is bright for the Sea Gulls who return eight of nine starters, including all of the pitching staff, despite losing seniors Lake and outfielder Summer Paglianete.
All the players know it will be tough replacing their two senior leaders, especially Lake, who started every game this season for the Gulls.
“It’ll be tough—in the dugout, on the field and off the field she’s just been a wonderful person,” coach Knight said.
Junior and soon-to-be senior LeAnne Collins has already been a leader on the field this season, being an everyday starter in right field and leading the team with an incredible .537 batting average.
“I took a more aggressive approach this season; anything even close to where I wanted it early in the count, I was swinging,” Collins said. “My approach has always been, ‘hit first, hold off second’. . .I always try to look as if I’m swinging at every pitch.”
After being named the CAC Player of the Year as one of the top hitters in the country, Collins is already looking forward to next season after the tough finish.
“I hope it stings a little to finish on two loses,” Collins said. “I’m hoping that motivates the team to work a little harder and practice being more disciplined.”
The end of the season will certainly stay in the minds of Sea Gull players as their season ends earlier than expected. After losing two senior leaders, each player is looking to see who will be the one to step up next season and lead the team back to where they can be.
When it comes to potential, Salisbury has a lot of room for growth returning their entire roster minus two with a lot of young players seeing success this season.
“I think as long as people keep working really hard. . .the sky is the limit for this team,” Collins said.