Rachel Paulus’ home run in the top of the ninth gave UW-Eau Claire its second straight Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference fastpitch softball tournament title as the Blugolds defeated regular season champion UW-Oshkosh, 3-2, in the second championship game at Gelein Field in Carson Park here Saturday night.
The marathon 2 hour, 15-minute contest was dripping with drama as Eau Claire earned the league’s automatic berth in the 59-team NCAA Division III championships which get underway next week.
The Blugolds were the preseason pick to win their fourth straight WIAC championship this year but struggled to a 10-6 record and a fourth place finish while Oshkosh went through the league with a 15-1 mark including 3-0 and 1-0 wins over Eau Claire.
The two teams met three times in this weekend’s tournament with all three games decided by one run. Eau Claire won both games that went nine innings, 4-3 and 3-2, while Oshkosh won the first championship game, 2-1.
Oshkosh, with a 34-9 season record and its No. 11 NFCA Division III national ranking, is a likely at-large pick for the NCAA tournament when the field is announced late Sunday night or Monday morning.
Blugold sophomore righthander Bri Sturm was sailing along with a one-hitter until the bottom of the seventh inning. That’s when leadoff hits by Jennelle Schmidt and Brianna Bilotti plus a one-hit single by Ashley Steltenpohl set the stage for Whitney Tyriver’s game-tying two-run single to left.
The Titans loaded the bases again in the eighth with two out but Sturm got Steltenpohl swinging to end the inning after falling behind 3-1 on the count.
After Paulus gave the Blugolds the lead in the ninth, Mallory McKinney came on in the bottom of the inning to pick up the save. After she retired the first two batters in order, the Titans put two runners on base before a flyout ended the game.
Eau Claire had several chances to break the game open as they loaded the bases with no one out and failed to score in the fifth. They also loaded the bases with no one out in the sixth but scored only one run.
The Blugolds put their first run on the board in the third with doubles by Casey Leisgang and Mallory McKinney.
Eau Claire outhit the Titans, 11-7, for the game but left 11 on the bases while Oshkosh stranded nine. Leisgang and Kidnie each rapped three hits to lead the Eau Claire attack.
Eau Claire is now 31-12 for the season and has won 11 of its last 14 games. The only losses in that span with 3-0, 1-0 and 2-1 decisions to Oshkosh.