Louisville eliminates softball from Big East tournament

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Facing a steep test in regular season title winners Louisville at the Big East Tournament May 11, the DePaul softball team still had a good chance to bounce the favorites, having handed the Cardinals their only two losses of the season earlier this year.

It wasn’t meant to be, however, as the Blue Demons fell to the tournament’s top seed 2-0 on Friday afternoon in the conference semifinals at Melissa Cook Stadium on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

The Blue Demons were at least able to leave the tournament with a win after putting forth a convincing outing the day before, defeating the South Florida Bulls 6-0 in the quarterfinal round.

There is one thing that Eugene Lenti has consistently preached all season, which stuck for his players against the Bulls.
“Hitting is contagious.”

Whether good or bad hitting, the DePaul head softball coach sticks to those three words. He saw what the good contagious hitting can lead to as his fifth-seed team the fourth-seed in what only counts as an upset because of the seeding.

This game was highly anticipated because of the last time these two teams met. On DePaul’s senior day in 2011, the Bulls players and coaches walked off the field under protest and forfeited the game. Though Lenti said that everything was fine now and he and USF coach Ken Eriksen exchanged pleasantries before the game, the team remembered.

“We were fired up coming into it because we haven’t played them in a while,” senior second baseman Lynsey Ciezki said. “USF is always a good game.”

Ciezki started the scoring for DePaul in the fifth inning with a single, driving in Paige Peterson, who doubled to right field. But that was only the beginning of a six-run inning that put the game out of reach. Ciezki finished 1-for-2 with a run scored and an RBI.

“Anytime you can get us started the way Paige got us started, that’s a big thing,” Lenti said about Peterson’s double to lead off the fifth inning. “We just kind of went off of her momentum.”

The pitching matchup of Kirsten Verdun against USF’s Sara Nevins proved to be the pitchers’ duel that was expected through the first four innings, with neither pitcher allowing a hit until DePaul’s Katelyn Braget singled to right field in the top of the fourth.

Nevins, despite not allowing a hit early on, struggled to find the strike zone and had the help of the umpire on the outside corner. By the time she gave up her first hit, she had already walked two batters and hit one Blue Demon.

“She was playing around a little bit,” Ciezki said about Nevins struggling to find the plate. “The umpire was calling the outside pitch, so I knew I had to expand my strike zone.”

Verdun, meanwhile, was in command for the entire game with the exception of a few small hiccups. The unanimously voted All-Big East first-team player pitched a complete game shutout, striking out five, giving up two hits and not walking a single USF batter. The only base runner DePaul allowed in the first three innings was off of an Allie Braden error.

“She’s such a bulldog, she always has our back,” Ciezki said about the do-everything Verdun. “We know if we can get her one run, she’ll shut the other team down. We want to score as many runs as we can to take the pressure off of her.”

After Peterson scored and Verdun reached on a fielder’s choice to load the bases, freshman and All-Big East third-team selection Mary Connolly came to the plate and knocked in Ciezki and Samantha Dodd to tack two more runs on the board. Then with Verdun on third and Staci Bonezek pinch-running for Connolly, Braget singled right up the middle to drive both runners in. Braget scored on a wild pitch to compete the scoring, more than enough for the Blue Demons on Thursday.

“It was awesome, especially being a senior,” Ciezki admitted. “USF was going to be hard, they had great pitching coming in. It was awesome to score six runs off of them.”

Before they prepared to face Louisville, Ciezki was asked if she heard the USF fans cheering and screaming loudly down near the field. None of it was too favorable to DePaul, but she silenced them the best way possible.

“You have to block them out, it is what it is,” Ciezki said. “Maybe they’re a little quieter now that we won.”

A second win would inevitably be tougher to come by against Louisville, and unfortunately for the Blue Demons was ultimately left out of reach. Lenti did not raise his voice over a normal conversational tone when speaking to his team after the game. He didn’t need to.

The looks in the eyes of the Blue Demons gave the sense that they knew what they were up against and knew what they needed to do. They just couldn’t pull through in the clutch moments.

Louisville pitcher Tori Collins (24-1), an All-Big East first team selection at her position, kept DePaul off track for most of the game. She struck out six Blue Demons, only gave up two hits and made sure DePaul never really threatened despite walking four batters.

“Their pitcher [Collins] obviously had our number,” Lenti said. “We weren’t very disciplined, we had our chances and we just couldn’t execute.”

DePaul’s all-conference pitcher in Verdun (26-13) was solid on the mound as well, but one letdown in the fourth inning led to Louisville getting all the runs they would need for the game.

Verdun retired the first two batters of the top of the fourth and seemed to be breezing along, but back-to-back hits by Jordan Trimble and Maggie Ruckenbrod set the stage for Kayla Soles’ two-out, two-run double. There was no more harm, but the damage had been done.

The Blue Demons certainly had their chances to get on the board early and often, with Collins sometimes struggling to find the plate with her pitches. But while the first three batters for DePaul (Ciezki, Dodd and Verdun) went a combined 2-for-5 with four walks, the rest of the lineup didn’t record a hit in 17 at-bats.

“They were definitely fired up. We just ran into a hot pitcher,” Lenti responded when asked if the team was ready for Friday’s game. “We weren’t quite ready mentally for that type of pitcher. Any time a pitcher doesn’t have to throw strikes to get you out, it’s going to be a long haul offensively.”

DePaul finally seemed poised to break through in the top of the sixth, after Dodd reached on an infield single and Verdun drew a walk. But the first pitch to Mary Connolly was gathered by Ruckenbrod, who caught Dodd napping off of second base and picked her off for the first out of the inning. The Blue Demons were seemingly unable to recover from that and never had another threat the rest of the game.

“It’s a cardinal sin as a base runner,” Lenti said of the mistake by Dodd. “We watched a lot of film on them and we knew that the catcher liked to throw. We just got caught off guard. Shame on Sam and shame on us [the coaching staff].”

The upcoming NCAA Tournament will be the Blue Demons softball team’s last chance to extend their postseason.