UMass’ offense wakes up to rally past Saint Louis in A-10 Tournament elimination game

  • Kiara Oliver, of UMass, pitches to George Washington, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kiara Oliver, of UMass, pitches to George Washington, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melissa Garcia, of UMass, catches at first on a hit by Hannah Eslick, of George Washington, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass Head Coach Kristi Stefanoni works third base against George Washington, George Washington, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Danielle Ellis, right, of UMass, watches George Washington pitcher Sierra Lange as she leads off at first in the second inning, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. First baseman Elena Shelepak is between them. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kaycee Carbone, of UMass, throws to third to complete a double play after catching a hit by Jenna Cone, of George Washington, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The UMass dugout cheers for their batter during their loss to George Washington, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Riley Gregoire, of UMass, bunts against George Washington, but her hit was caught, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Erin Stacecicz, of UMass, tries a bunt against George Washington, George Washington, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Caroline Videtto, left, of UMass, beats a tag by Hannah Eslick, of George Washington, and steals second in the fifth inning, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kendra Allen, left, of UMass, tags out Marta Fuentes, of George Washington, at third on a hit by Jenna Cone to complete a double play in the fifth inning, Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Sortino Field. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/9/2019 10:56:57 PM
Modified: 5/9/2019 10:56:44 PM

AMHERST — Kristi Stefanoni knew first baseman Melissa Garcia needed more time to cool down between games Thursday.

It was the senior’s error to start the eighth inning that came back to haunt UMass in its loss to George Washington to open the day. Garcia even recorded the last out with three hacks at Sierra Lange’s riseballs, none of which came close to making contact.

She was hitting fifth in the lineup against the Colonials, a spot where she has been for most of the season. When Stefanoni handed in her lineup card for the Atlantic 10 Tournament elimination game against Saint Louis a half hour after the loss, Garcia was moved down to the eighth spot in the order. It wasn’t an indictment on the senior or the confidence UMass’ coach had in her, simply a move from a veteran coach who understands her players’ psyche.

“I thought she needed a little breathing room, a little time to relax,” Stefanoni said. “She’s one of our biggest competitors and she wears her heart on her sleeve, she just needed a little bit of space. She’s obviously still a great hitter and moving her down wasn’t because she isn’t a great hitter. But when the season is on the line for a senior like that, you need a little time to breathe and maybe not come up in big situations just yet. It was good for her, she did a great job.”

The decision seemed to pay off for Stefanoni and the Minutewomen against the Billikens. Garcia’s single into left field started a two-out rally in the fourth inning that produced six runs and vaulted UMass into the lead. The senior then iced the game with a frozen rope double in the next inning to provide an insurance run as the second-seeded Minutewomen survived No. 6 Saint Louis, 7-5, at Sortino Field.

“I knew I needed to be better for my team in that second game,” Garcia said. “I didn’t do great in that first game, so I just took a walk, cleared my head, kept my composure and gave everything I could to that game to help my team win.”

The first 3½ innings went poorly for the Minutewomen (26-21) and it looked like the hangover from an extra-innings loss less than an hour before was taking its toll. The Billikens seemed to be timing sophomore ace Kiara Oliver well from the outset, striking for a run in the first inning and two more in the third before Quinn Breidenbach took over in the circle. The junior escaped the third-inning jam, but then gave up a homer to lead off the fourth inning, energizing the Saint Louis (19-33) dugout as it smelled an upset.

While Saint Louis seemed to find its offense, UMass’ bats were still sputtering after being held in check during a 2-1 eight-inning loss to George Washington. The Minutewomen had just one hit in the first three innings against Saint Louis and couldn’t convert with the bases loaded in the third inning after working a pair of walks. The fourth inning started much of the same way as consecutive outs followed Danielle Ellis’ walk to lead off the frame. In its first 11 innings of softball Thursday, UMass amassed just one run and seven hits while stranding 11 runners on base.

“It’s definitely frustrating, but (we’ll be fine) as long as we play our game,” said sophomore second baseman Hannah Bunker, who had two hits in both games. “We’re not going to hit home runs, that’s not our team, as long as we just pass the bat and keep it going, we’ll be fine.”

With Kristina Day standing on first base after a fielder’s choice, Garcia came up in her first big situation in that fourth inning. She singled into left field in what looked to be routine fashion, but the hit seemed to spark a new level of energy in the UMass lineup. All of a sudden, the breaks started to fall the Minutewomen’s way and the tide of momentum shifted.

Erin Stacevicz sped quickly enough down the basepath after an infield chopper to the second baseman that she forced a rushed throw, which allowed two runs to score and her to advance to second. Kaitlyn Stavinoha then sent a blooper into center field that Kat Lane nearly caught, but dropped at the last second, allowing two more runs to score and Stanihova to end up with a double. Kaycee Carbone recorded the sixth and final consecutive hit with a double off the top of the wall in right-center field that was inches shy of being a home run.

Five of the six batters who had a hit in the rally were seniors who were in danger of playing their final game in a UMass uniform. That desperation seemingly took over in that moment and they went back on the offensive early in counts, the strategy that has made the Minutewomen successful all season.

“We just knew we had to get it done,” Garcia said. “We knew we had to score runs, and then scoring that many runs with two outs is just awesome.”

The win over the Billikens set up a matchup everyone expected to see Friday, just 2½ hours later than anticipated. Top-seeded Fordham and No. 2 UMass will now tangle at 1:30 p.m. in an elimination game instead of the 11 a.m. winners bracket game, which will feature No. 3 George Washington and No. 5 Saint Joseph’s. For as much as the focus heading into the weekend wasn’t about exacting revenge on the Rams, the Minutewomen now have the chance to do exactly that while also officially ending Fordham’s six-year reign on top the Atlantic 10.

Not much will need to be said before this game because everyone knows what is at stake.

“Our games against Fordham in all my four years have always been great,” Garcia said. “They’re always back and forth, they’re exciting, they’re the most fun games I’ve ever been a part of. To play against Fordham and both of us in the elimination bracket, it’s pretty funny because who thought? But it happens, this is the A-10s and anything can happen.”


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