HOUSTON, Texas –The East Carolina softball team fell behind 1-0 in the top of the first, but came back to claim its first Conference USA Tournament championship with a 3-1 victory over UCF. Sophomore Priscilla Velasquez drove in the game-winning run in the bottom of the second inning with a sacrifice fly that scored senior Cristen Aona. C-USA Tournament Most Valuable Player Toni Paisley earned her 30th win of the season in the complete-game effort.
With the tournament title, the Pirates receive Conference USA’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It is ECU’s third berth in the post-season tournament and second in the past three seasons. The Pirates were in the NCAA Tournament in 1999, falling to Arizona and Southeast Missouri State, and returned in 2008, defeating Mississippi Valley State and losing to Louisiana-Lafayette and LSU.
This year’s NCAA Regionals begin Friday. East Carolina will learn where it is headed for regional action Sunday at 10:00 p.m., when the NCAA Tournament selection show airs on ESPNU.
In the championship contest, Paisley (30-9) scattered three hits and a pair of walks while striking out six. She surrendered an unearned run in the first inning. The six whiffs gave her 340 this season, setting the ECU single-season record. Paisley also moved up to second on the Conference USA all-time list as she has 878 in her career. For the tournament, the MVP allowed one unearned run and struck out 20.
Ashleigh Cole (23-13) took the loss for UCF, allowing three runs, five hits and two walks. The three runs were all unearned. Cole, a Conference USA All-Tournament Team selection, also struck out a batter.
In the top of the first, UCF took a 1-0 lead on an unearned run without a hit. It was only the sixth run the Pirates have given up in the first inning all season. Natalie Land received a one-out walk. After a pop-out, she stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by freshman catcher Kai Clark. With two outs and Abby McClain up to bat, Paisley threw a pitch that Clark thought was strike three, but it was only strike two. Clark threw the ball high up in the air back to Paisley. Paisley threw the ball back to Clark, but Land slid under the tag for the first run ECU had given up in the month of May and the first the Knights had scored against the Pirates the past two seasons.
East Carolina rebounded to take a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the second. To start the frame, the Pirates recorded the first hit of the game when senior Marina Gusman-Brown had an infield single to the shortstop. Gusman-Brown advanced to second on a groundout by classmate Kaui Tom, an all-tournament pick. Aona followed with a walk. Junior and Conference USA All-Tournament Team selection Sissy Jimenez then hit a hard ground ball to second baseman Land, who could not field the ball cleanly. Gusman-Brown scored on the play, Aona advanced to third and Jimenez to second. Velasquez’s sacrifice fly to left field drove in Aona for the game-winning run.
The Pirates had a chance to tack on another in the bottom of the third, but had a runner thrown out at home. Senior Charina Sumner led off with a double to the gap in left center and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by classmate Christina Merrida. With senior Vanessa Moreno, another all-tournament team pick, up to bat, Cole uncorked a wild pitch. Sumner broke for home, but the ball bounced back to McClain, the catcher. Sumner tried to head back to third and got caught in a rundown before being tagged out by Hillary Barrow, the third baseman.
In the top of the fifth, the Knights registered their first hit of the game with a Vanessa Perez one-out single to right center. A sacrifice bunt by Morgan Bullard moved Perez to second, but a groundout to Aona at third ended the threat.
UCF had another chance to rally in the top of the sixth. Land led off with a single to center field and stole second base with one out. A fly-out to right field advanced Land to third with two down. Marissa Menendez popped out to Tom to close the inning.
With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, ECU added its final run of the game for the 3-1 score. Aona tripled down the right-field line with two down and came home when shortstop Tiffany Lane misplayed Jimenez’s ground ball.
Paisley gave up a one-out double to Mary Helen Tyler in the seventh inning, but retired Perez on a groundout and Bullard on a foul out to seal the victory.
2010 Conference USA All-Tournament Team
Toni Paisley (MVP) ECU
Marina Gusman-Brown ECU
Sissy Jimenez ECU
Vanessa Moreno ECU
Kaui Tom ECU
Hillary Barrow UCF
Ashleigh Cole UCF
Abby McClain UCF
Vanessa Perez UCF
Maddie McKinley Memphis