Minutewomen Keep A-10 Crown: Cullington's Record Blast Propels UMass
May 14, 2007
MHERST - University of Massachusetts softball player Stacy Cullington thought the pitch it was ball four. It turned out to be a prelude to history.
Cullington flipped the bat toward the dugout and started toward first, thinking she had drawn a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the third inning of Saturday's Atlantic 10 championship game against Saint Louis. She looked sheepish when the umpire called her back because it was only ball three.
But Cullington dug back in and launched the next pitch over the left-field wall for a grand slam that not only gave her 15 home runs - breaking both the UMass and Atlantic 10 single-season records - but also locked up the Minutewomen's third straight A-10 championship. UMass won 9-3.
UMass (37-12-1) is headed to its 13th straight NCAA Tournament. The Minutewomen will find out where they will play in one of 16 regionals next weekend when the tournament field is announced Sunday afternoon.
UMass had a scary moment in the top of the fifth Saturday, when Billiken cleanup hitter Christy Ernst lined the ball up the middle. It hit off the glove of Minutewoman ace Brandice Balschmiter and struck her upper rib cage, knocking her to the ground.
After receiving attention from the trainer, the sophomore pitcher got up and struck out the next two batters and went on to win the tournament's most-outstanding player honor.
"That hurt. But I refused to come out of the game," said Balschmiter, who had no lingering effects of the injury on Sunday. "I wanted to come back and show 'You can hit me, but you're not taking me out.' "
UMass coach Elaine Sortino said she was scared when it happened, but was more concerned about her pitcher's inconsistency before getting hit.
"It was a little frightening, but I thought she pitched better after she got hit," said Sortino. "If we start a regional with a pitching performance like that, we're going to get run-ruled."
The UMass defense betrayed Balschmiter in the second inning and ended her scoreless inning streak at 37-1/3. With one out and Annie Dillinger on first, Allison Appenfeller hit a bouncer to short. Whitney Williams hurried while trying to get the lead runner and threw the ball into right field, putting Saint Louis runners on first and third.
The Billikens (29-33) tried a delayed double steal. Minutewoman catcher Jess Serio threw to Cullington at second, hoping to draw the runner off third. It worked as Dillinger took a step toward home. Cullington tried to nail her at third but her throw sailed high and wide, allowing Dillinger to score and Appenfeller to move to third. Balschmiter stranded her there with two strikeouts to avoid further damage.
After Cullington blew the game open, Lauren Proctor singled to left, ending Saint Louis starter Stacy Gillette's afternoon. Relief pitcher Lorena Floccari got the next two hitters, but Salato's triple brought home Proctor. An RBI-double by Serio followed by Williams' RBI single put UMass up 8-1 after three innings.
The Billikens added two runs in the fourth and UMass got one back in the bottom of the inning. After getting hit, Balschmiter didn't give up another run.
Cullington was still laughing about her odd at-bat after the game.
"For the most part I was thinking, "All right I get another chance,' " said Cullington, who took some good-natured ribbing from her teammates afterward. "They were saying, 'Stacy it takes four.' I'll probably never hear the end of that."
After the game the Minutewomen's celebration was pretty subdued.
Sortino said she wasn't surprised. "We've talked about it. There's one place we'll celebrate this year," Sortino said. "We just have to keep walking forward."
"It's just another stepping-stone for us," Molinari said. "We have high expectations. We want to go to the (Women's College) World Series."
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com. For more UMass coverage including a frequently updated UMass sports blog, go to www.dailyhampshiregazette.com/umsports.