‘Golds fall in conference championship

Chris Kemp

As the Blugolds assembled across Van Steenderen Field in the bottom of the third, one thing stood between them and their first bid in the NCAA Div. III playoffs since 2000 – UW-Stout.

Everything was falling in the ‘Gold’s favor prior to this point. Eau Claire was undefeated in the WIAC Tournament and needed one victory out of two against Stout to fulfill its season goal.

With a 2-2 tie, Stout freshman Jackie Juan stepped in the batter’s box. She already hit three home runs in previous games, but Eau Claire coach Leslie Huntington said the Blugolds were ready to win the tournament.

“We were pretty confident that we were going to win one more game and move on,” Huntington said. “We were 100 percent ready for this.”

With one out and runners on first and second, sophomore Mallory McKinney released a high pitch over Juan’s head. Instead of settling for a ball, Juan cracked her fourth home run of the tournament, while dashing Eau Claire’s hopes.

“It was a lucky hit,” McKinney said. “I tried pitching her a ball and she just stuck her bat out there and hit it.”

It was this turning point that set the stage for the Blugolds’ fate. Eau Claire dropped the game 6-2 and eventually went on to lose the tournament final 4-1, which gave Stout its first NCAA Tournament bid in the school’s history.

“The basic thing is it wasn’t meant to be,” Huntington said.

A four-hour rain delay Friday, she said, kept the ‘Golds anxious to redeem themselves from last season’s early exit against UW-La Crosse. Once the sky cleared, however, Eau Claire made some early noise with a 7-0 win over UW-Whitewater.

McKinney belted a solo shot in the bottom of the second and pitched six scoreless innings.

“Our players did an outstanding job of staying focused,” Huntington said. “We talked to the players about not speculating what was going to happen.”

After overcoming their first hurdle, the Blugolds then squared off against UW-Stevens Point. The Pointers got ahead of Eau Claire 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth after Stevens Point junior Jenny Feidt hit an RBI single.

Eau Claire answered back when freshman Tessa Pecha crossed home plate on wild pitch from Stevens Point pitcher Kelly Jablonski.

The Blugolds then broke away from Stevens Point in the top of the eighth as they scored three runs for a 4-1 lead. McKinney hit a sacrifice fly for a run, and freshman Jill Janke hit a two-run home run.

Eau Claire now had to face off against Stout for the first time in the tournament. With both teams undefeated, the Blugolds set the tone early with a solo shot from freshman Megan Oster. Senior Molly Blakewell added to Eau Claire’s firepower with a two-run home run. Janke added an RBI double to advance the score 4-0.

Stout didn’t surrender, however. The Blue Devils roared back with five unearned runs before Eau Claire stopped the watershed with another Janke RBI. Four runs in the sixth provided the ‘Golds with the final advantage at 9-5.

The second of what proved to be a three game series started positively for the Blugolds as they took an early 2-0 advantage in the third inning when sophomore Rachel Paulus stole home with McKinney adding an RBI groundout.

It was the last time Eau Claire would stay ahead of Stout in the final two games as the Blue Devils pulled away with the automatic bid.

“We played our hearts out against Stout,” junior outfielder Mandy Freidel said. “We were really disappointed with this weekend’s outcome because we worked so hard to get to where we were.”

It is the second straight season the Blugolds have won the WIAC regular season title and carried the top-seed into the tournament but failed to win the bid.

“If you look at Stout, they’re a hot team right now,” Huntington said. “We were good enough to win the tournament. It just didn’t happen.”