Pirates defeat Bearcats to qualify for NWC playoffs

by Korey Hope

The Whitworth softball squad guaranteed itself a three-seed in the Northwest Conference playoffs this weekend at Linfield with wins in its final two games of the regular season on Tuesday at Marks Field.

The games were rescheduled from last weekend when the final two games in a four-game set against Willamette were cancelled due to weather.

Whitworth (14-12 NWC) entered the day tied for third in the Northwest Conference standings with Pacific (14-12 NWC), and just ahead of George Fox (15-13 NWC). Both the Pirates and Pacific had make-up doubleheaders on Tuesday, and both teams needed two victories to advance to the NWC playoffs and knock George Fox down to fifth in the NWC and out of playoff contention.

“It’s huge that they came through in crunch time,” head coach Cristal Brown said. “Because this weekend, it’s crunch time every game.”

The Bucs went into a 5-1 hole in the fourth inning of game one after freshman shortstop Ashley Pender hit a three-RBI triple for the Bearcats. But the Pirates countered in the bottom of the fourth with a three-run home run from junior first baseman Julia Johnson, and trailed Willamette 5-4 heading into the fifth. The Bearcats managed to scrape across two unearned runs in the fifth, but the Pirates responded with a two-run sixth inning.

Junior right fielder Makenzie Hope led-off the seventh by reaching on an error for the Pirates, and advanced to third after two ground balls by Pirate hitters. Down to the final out with the tying run on third and playoff hopes on the line, senior center fielder Heather Hesselgesser stepped in and delivered a single up the middle to tie the game for the Pirates.

“In my mind I really didn’t want to be the last out,” Hesselgesser said. “I didn’t want my career to end like that.”

After sophomore pitcher Riley Fritz retired the Bearcats in the top of the eighth, the Pirates loaded the bases with nobody out for freshman second baseman M’Liss Powles. Powles delivered a line drive over the head of the Bearcats’ left fielder to bring in junior pinch-runner Hanna Boyd and give the Pirates an 8-7 victory in eight innings.

After nearly getting their playoff chances dashed in game one, the Pirates came out in game two and gave up the lead early once more. The Bearcats led Whitworth 4-2 in the bottom of the fifth, when the Pirates began to rally. Whitworth’s top three RBI leaders each drove in a run (senior designated hitter Jamie Brunner, Hesselgesser and Johnson) to give Whitworth a 5-4 lead in the late stages.

Looking for insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth, the Pirates were able to tack on three more runs thanks to two RBIs from Hesselgesser, her fifth and sixth of the afternoon. Sophomore pitcher Taylor Gilbert withstood a seventh inning rally from Willamette and closed out the game for Whitworth to earn the victory, her sixth of the season.

The Pirates hung on to win by a final score of 8-6 to advance into the Northwest Conference playoffs for the second time in the past six years.

“They went and figured their stuff out, and came out a little bit of a different team,” Brown said. “The energy was different and they were bound and determined to fight and claw their way to some wins.”

Brown also mentioned Whitworth softball had a team-only practice on Monday, in which none of the Whitworth coaching staff was present.

“We all came together and worked on what we felt we needed to work on,” Hesselgesser said. “It was relaxed and just what we needed for the games against Willamette.”

The Pirates have a short week this week, before heading to McMinnville, Ore. on the campus of Linfield College for the Northwest Conference Tournament.

The Pirates finished the regular season with a 16-12 mark in the NWC, tied with Pacific for third in the conference. Whitworth owns the tiebreakers against Pacific, and will therefore will enter the playoffs as the three-seed and will take on two-seed and defending national champion Pacific Lutheran (18-10 NWC). The Lutes took three out of four games against the Pirates earlier this year.

The softball squad will head for Oregon on Friday morning in preparation for the weekend’s action. Whitworth will face PLU at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in the double elimination tournament, host Linfield will take on four-seed Pacific in the other matchup at 11 a.m. on Saturday. The NWC championship game is scheduled for Sunday with an automatic NCAA Tournament berth at stake.

Contact Korey Hope at khope16@my.whitworth.edu

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