Debra Lovell went 2-for-2 with two home runs and five RBIs to spark Utah Valley University's late rally as it claimed its first-ever WAC Tournament championship with a 7-6 win over New Mexico State on Saturday afternoon. The Wolverines capped a run of four consecutive wins at the tournament after entering as the fourth seed out of five teams.
Wolverine softball becomes the first team sport in Utah Valley's Division I history to reach the NCAA postseason and the first to claim the WAC's automatic postseason bid since joining the league last summer. UVU now advances to the NCAA Tournament with the Regional round's sites and participants to be unveiled during the 2014 NCAA Division I Softball Championship Selection Show, airing on ESPNU at 8 p.m. MT on Sunday.
"Every single person on this roster believed in one thing and that was winning a WAC championship," UVU head coach Nikki Palmer said, who will take home a tournament championship in her first season with the team. "We visualized this day and it played out to a T and its a tribute to this group of girls who battled through so much adversity this season and believed in the ultimate end goal."
Utah Valley (18-40) found itself trailing for the first time in the tournament when NM State (31-23) hung four runs on the scoreboard in the top of the second. The Aggies connected for two home runs in the frame — including a two-run shot from Tatum Deety — to take a 4-1 lead and chase starting pitcher Josi Summers from the game. Summers had come into the game with a 3-0 record and a 0.71 ERA in 19.2 innings pitched in the tournament.
Coming on in relief for the second time on the weekend, Bailey Moore was able to stifle NM State's offensive efforts during the middle innings. The WAC's top offensive team went scoreless over its next four trips to the plate, tallying only two hits in that time.
But the big inning was still to come as the Wolverines rallied in the fourth. The Aggies were cruising through the frame before Kelli Fox reached on an error with two outs. The Aggie miscue proved costly after Robinson walked in the next at-bat, setting the stage for Lovell. The senior sent a towering fly ball over the center field wall, scoring three and putting the Wolverines back out in front, 5-4.
"What I love about Debra is her consistency in her attitude," Palmer said. "That's such an intangible for a hitter and it played in big for her in those tight situations today. She came up big."
The rally wasn't done there, though, as Brittney Vansway doubled down the left field line in the next at-bat, and came in to score when Brianna Gatlin hammered one off the wall in left field to make the score 6-4.
Lovell's offensive showcase wasn't finished there, though, when the senior provided what became an invaluable insurance run in the bottom of the sixth. With two out and nobody on the senior again homered, this time to left field. The third home run of the tournament for Lovell also stood as her career-best fifth RBI of the game after she had opened the scoring with a sacrifice fly in the first.
"Today could have been the final games of my career and that was on my mind coming in," Lovell said. "I wanted to finish the season strong and be a leader for this team and be the kind of player that turns it on when it matters most. We had a goal to go undefeated at the tournament and I'm so proud of my teammates for getting it done."
Leading 7-4 and needing three outs for the title, UVU ran into some trouble when Staci Rodriguez led off with a home run for the Aggies. A groundout later, Fiana Finau singled to bring the tying run to the plate. The base hit prompted Summers' return to the circle in an attempt to record the final two outs. Summers induced a fly out to right field, but Finau moved up on the play and came in to score on a wild pitch on the ensuing at-bat. But after surrendering a walk to bring the go-ahead run to the plate, Summers finished what she started when she got Malena Padilla to ground out to shortstop to seal the championship.
Summers finished the tournament 3-0 with a save to go along with a 1.62 ERA. For her efforts, she was named the WAC Tournament MVP and joined teammates Lovell, Erin Romero and Vansway on the All-Tournament team.
"I came into the tournament wanting to make a statement," Summers said after taking MVP honors. "I didn't have the best regular season, but my goal was to make everyone know my name by the end of the year. I just wanted to go out and perform — not only for myself but for my fellow seniors and the team."
Palmers said she was proud of Summers and hopes she keeps up this kind of play.
"Josi is very good and she just waited all year to show us her absolute A game," she said. "I'm hoping she'll continue on this path as we move forward into Regionals."
The Wolverines will now represent the WAC at the NCAA Regionals in their first season in the league. UVU, which came into the tournament as the fourth seed, claimed the title with wins over five-seed Bakersfield and two-seed Kansas City, as well as two victories over top-seeded NM State.
Kellen Hiser is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.