By Greg Chandler
Clutch pitching. Stellar defense. Capitalizing on opponents' mistakes.
The Hope College softball team used all three of those attributes on Saturday at Wolters Stadium to claim a share of its fifth Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship.
The Flying Dutch swept visiting and 23rd-ranked Alma College, 2-0 and 3-1, with the second game going 10 innings to pull even with the Scots in the MIAA standings.
Hope (25-11 overall, 13-3 MIAA) wins the head-to-head tiebreaker over Alma for the top seed and home-field advantage for next week's MIAA tournament. The double-elimination tournament begins on Thursday at Wolters Stadium for the Flying Dutch with a first-round game against fourth-seeded Trine. Alma and Saint Mary's also are in the field.
This year's Flying Dutch join the 2006, 1996, 1995 and 1992 teams as MIAA champions.
The sweep of Alma on Senior Day culminated a big week for the Flying Dutch in which they went head-to-head with the two schools that have dominated MIAA softball for the last decade. Wednesday's stunning sweep of Trine put Hope in a position where a sweep of Alma would give them a conference championship.
"You always feel fortunate to be able to play for the championship on the last day of the conference season," Hope coach Mary Vande Hoef said. "We knew what we had to do."
Hope jumped on the Scots and their ace pitcher, Morgan Stratton, early in Game 1, capitalizing on an Alma error to score what turned out to be the only runs of the game.
Sophomore shortstop Shay Pinhey of Ann Arbor, Michigan (Pioneer HS) reached on the miscue with one out, then raced home when junior catcher Hayley Reitsma of Grand Rapids, Michigan (GR Christian) tripled up the gap in right-center field. It was the team-leading 36th RBI of the season for Reitsma, who had been in a 4-for-28 slump before her triple.
"It finally showed the hard work I had put in this week," Reitsma said. "Coach Kelli (Duimstra) and Coach Ellen (Stremler) really worked with me this week to help me get my swing back. It felt amazing to get those runs in."
Junior second baseman Sierra Mutschler of Wayland, Michigan (Wayland) followed with a groundout to score Reitsma for a 2-0 Hope lead.
From there, junior pitcher Sydney Jones of South Lyon, Michigan (East) shut down an Alma offense that had come into the game with a team batting average of .355.
Jones allowed just two hits, walked one, struck out seven and did not allow a Scot runner past second base in recording her school-record 10th shutout of the season. The previous school record was nine, set by Kelsey Guisbert in 2005.
"We knew there was a lot of the line today," Jones said. "We just came out as a team and played our best. I trusted my defense and trusted my offense the whole time."
Jones was aided by several outstanding defensive plays by her teammates, most notably sophomore left fielder Noelle Jackson of Grand Blanc, Michigan (Grand Blanc), who made a fine running catch of a long fly to left to start the seventh.
In the second game, Reitsma struck again, delivering a single off Stratton in the top of the first to score senior centerfielder Sammi Adams of Griffth, Indiana (Griffith), who had singled, stole second and moved to third on a throwing error.
Hope escaped two early jams to maintain its 1-0 lead, as junior starting pitcher Katie Singer of Howell, Michigan (Hartland) stranded two runners in the first, and freshman reliever Tena Baar of Byron Center, Michigan (Byron Center) worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the third.
The Scots pulled even in the fifth when Mary Brooks doubled down the right-field line to score Chelsea Schweiger, tying the game at 1-1. Alma then put the first two batters on base in the sixth, prompting Vande Hoef to turn to Jones.
Reitsma picked an Alma runner off second, but the Scots got another hit to put two runners back on again. But Jones got Erin Lee to pop up and struck out pinch-hitter Kaylee Martin to keep the score even. She would not allow another Alma hit the rest of the day.
"For us to have a deep postseason run, we're going to need Katie and Tena and all of our (pitching) staff," Vande Hoef said. "Once it was close late, we made the decision to go back to Syd. We felt confident in her being able to shut them down. To hold them to one run on the day is a tall task."
Hope had chances to break the tie in both the seventh and the ninth, but could not push a run across. But in the 10th, the Flying Dutch broke through with the help of two Alma errors.
With Jackson on second base to start the inning under the international tiebreaker rule, Hope quickly worked her around. Freshman Amanda Diaz of Round Lake, Illinois (Mundelein) sacrificed Jackson to third. Adams followed with a fly ball to right that was deep enough to score Jackson, but ended up on second when the right fielder dropped the ball.
Adams moved to third on a passed ball, and scored the big insurance run on a throwing error by Alma's second baseman while trying to cut her down at the plate. That would be all Jones would need as she set the Scots down in order in the bottom of the 10th to nail down the sweep and the championship.
Jones struck out five, walked one, and allowed one hit in her five-inning relief stint to raise her season record to 15-4 and lower her ERA to 0.78.
Both teams had eight hits in the second game, with junior first baseman Sarah Jones of Norton Shores, Michigan (Mona Shores) being the only Hope player with two hits.