The Northwestern State softball team nearly completed a perfect home slate in the Southland Conference on Sunday before a rally fell short in a series finale loss to Central Arkansas.
But the Lady Demons (28-23, 15-11 SLC) gave their three seniors a series win with a Sunday split and wrapped up the No. 6 seed in the upcoming SLC Tournament, which begins Tuesday in Natchitoches.
NSU takes on No. 7 seed Lamar in a single-elimination game Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. with the winner advancing to play No. 3 seed McNeese at 6:30 p.m.
The Lady Demons finished 11-1 at home in conference play after the series finale loss, 2-1.
In the first game, senior pitcher Mikayla Brown took over the No. 6 spot on the all-time NSU career wins list with her second shutout this week in a 4-0 victory.
“Mikayla has had three quality starts in the last three games, and she gave us a really good outing today,” Pickett said. “She worked around a couple of defensive errors and set the tone, getting us huge shutout today in a big win.
“We were able to get some big hits in that first game, and I thought we played pretty well. We didn’t come out with a great energy level in the last game, and we were never able to get out of the rut.”
NSU honored its three seniors Brown, Kaylee Isenburg and Kayla Roquemore on Sunday.
NSU 4, UCA 0
Brown (5-7) tossed her fourth shutout this season and 12th of her career Sunday, landing her in NSU’s top 10 in that category as well.
The Deville native scattered four hits and three walks in the series-clinching win Sunday after NSU took a 2-1 decision Friday.
“I’ve been working on my off-speed pitches, but (UCA) was sitting back on them,” Brown said. “I had to use more curves, screws and rise balls, get more spin.
“(Being on the career wins list) is awesome, but ever since my freshman year, I’ve had great teammates backing me up, and I wouldn’t have that many wins without those girls.”
UCA put runners in scoring position in three different innings, but Brown finished two of those three innings with strikeouts.
The Bears’ best chance to score came with the bases loaded in the seventh inning with the help of two errors, but Brown induced an infield pop fly to end UCA’s threat and the game.
At one point, Brown retired 10 straight batters from the second inning to the fifth inning.
NSU’s offense pecked away at UCA pitchers Kailla Searcy and Rachel Haberman to piece together innings.
The Lady Demons totaled nine hits, including a Maggie Black RBI single in the second inning. Black’s hit scored Hayley Barbazon (2-for-3), who led off with a triple, her fourth of the season. That’s one shy of NSU’s top five list, and her nine career triples is two shy of NSU’s career top-five.
Cayla Jones doubled NSU’s lead with a leadoff solo home run in the third inning off Searcy. Jones leads the team with eight home runs and is approaching her freshman total of 10.
With a pair of runners in scoring position in the fourth inning, Elise Vincent singled in a pair of runs to give Brown an insurmountable 4-0 edge. Vincent boosted her batting average to .317 in conference play.
Junior Emma Hawthorne tied a career-high three hits in the opener and has pulled up her batting average .287 this season.
“I’ve just been seeing the ball really well, and I’m watching every pitch in practice and taking advantage of every opportunity to be a better hitter,” said Hawthorne, who has 19 hits in her last 14 games. “It was definitely a good feeling to win every home series, and it gives us momentum into the conference tournament, and I know the seniors are happy we won.”
UCA 2, NSU 1
Northwestern State’s offense put runners all over the base paths in the series finale, but UCA ace Rio Sanchez ducked and dodged to prevent the Lady Demons sweep.
NSU had two innings derailed by runner’s interference calls as stranded 10 runners in their only home SLC loss in the regular season.
The first interference call came on a Maggie Black bases-loaded batted ball that scored a run before it was wiped out in the second inning.
The second interference call occurred in the third inning after a Cayla Jones single as the umpire ruled she obstructed a throw on an attempted double play.
But Sanchez (10-10) hung on for the win, including stranding a pair of NSU runners in the sixth and seventh innings. Sanchez skirted five hits, seven walks and an error to hold NSU to just a single run.
Senior Kayla Roquemore started the finale and drew a walk in her first at-bat, but Roquemore couldn’t find the ultimate fairy tale ending as she hit a hard liner back to the pitcher and struck out after a feisty at-bat in which she fouled off multiple two-strike pitches.
The strikeout came with runners on second and third base in the sixth inning.
In the previous at-bat, Black doubled in a run that halved UCA’s lead to 2-1.
NSU pitcher Samantha Guile (9-11) rebounded from a rough start in which she threw more than 30 pitches in the first inning.
UCA’s Libby Morris (3-for-3) singled in a run in the first inning before Guile left the bases loaded. Guile surrendered two walks and two singles to load the bases with no outs, but she held UCA to just one run.
Morris provided UCA’s other run with a sixth-inning home run.
Guile weathered the rough start to allow two runs on five hits and three walks in seven innings.
PHOTO CREDIT: Beverly Vincent/Northwestern State athletics