DePaul softball advances to Big East conference finals

With one out in the bottom of her first conference tournament inning, DePaul freshman Missy Zoch found herself standing in the pitcher’s circle surrounded by base runners.  It’s moments like these when the panic sets in, the energy begins to dissipate and fundamentals become lost in a spastic pursuit of strikeouts.

But Missy Zoch isn’t that kind of pitcher.  She remained calm and poised, like a veteran, and collected two straight outs to escape a bases-loaded jam – two hits, no runs, no errors.

“I knew that I really had to keep my cool and not show the team that I was getting down,” Zoch said. “I needed to show them I was bigger than what I showed on the field.”

From there, the freshman seemed to settle in nicely – very nicely.  Zoch dealt a no-hitter for the final six innings, striking out four and walking only one as the Blue Demon’s rolled through the Villanova Wildcats 4-0 Friday afternoon in the Big East Tournament semi-final game at The Ballpark in Rosemont.

“(Zoch) pitched like a first-team all-conference pitcher (today),” head coach Eugene Lenti said. “She showed a lot of poise.”

“She made some little adjustments in her delivery and she pounded the strike zone.  We changed it up late in the game, threw a lot of changeups early in the count, and then Missy got them on breaking stuff after that.”

Zoch says the key to settling into the game was leaning on her teammates and trusting that any ball hit their way was going to turn into an out.

“I knew my team was pumped up (…) and they were on it, “Zoch said. “They were flawless out there.”

And they nearly were – the Blue Demon’s defense was air-tight with the small exception of an error by first baseman Dylan Christensen in the top of the sixth inning, for which the Demons found a swift solution, logging three consecutive put-outs.

Villanova and DePaul played each other three times prior to Friday’s game, but the Wildcats tacked on seven, eight and nine runs in each game to sweep the series.

“I think a big difference is that we had our infield back together,” Lenti said. “That wasn’t the group that made 13 errors in the against Villanova on the road.  This is our most solid defense we can put on the field and it showed today – they made every play.”

“I don’t think we came out as strong or energetic as we did today,” Zoch said. “(The energy) really lacked in the series against them and we knew we needed to play (with more energy) today (…) We beat ourselves last time.”

DePaul’s offense took some of the pressure off of Zoch early with a two-run first inning. Dylan Christian walked ahead of a base hit from Big East Freshman of the Year Jessica Cothern to set-up a two-RBI triple in the right-center gap from Nicole Pihl.

DePaul scored again in the third inning with a double from Dylan Christensen, who scored on a two-out triple from Megan Leyva.

Coach Lenti credits the offensive production to having faced Villanova’s senior, first-team all-conference pitcher, Brette Lawrence, twice in the past two weeks and having a left-handed pitching coach to prepare for the lefty ace.

“They’ve used (Lawrence) a lot against us,” Lenti said. “Which we were a little bit surprised by.”

The Demons scored their final run of the game in the sixth inning with a textbook display of “small-ball”.  Megan Leyva got a base hit and stole second base to lead off the inning, then Alysia Rodriguez moved Leyva to third with a sacrifice bunt.  Haydn Christensen drove in Leyva on a long sacrifice fly to right field.

DePaul will face St. Johns tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. at The Ballpark in Rosemont.  The Demons are 2-1 against Red Storm this season, scoring 23 runs over three games.

“We were expecting this,” Zoch said. “And we beat them in the series, so I think we’re ready, that’s all I’ll say, honestly.”

“I think it’s the same formula every time you get to playoff softball,” Lenti said. “It’s timely hitting, strong pitching, and strong defense, so whoever does that tomorrow is going to be the Big East Champion.”