UCA softball ends 2023 in game three of Tuscaloosa Regional

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – It was a tale of two games on Saturday, as the Central Arkansas softball team felt the elation of victory before feeling the sting of defeat. The Bears avoided elimination for the first game of the day on Saturday, trouncing Long Island before falling to Middle Tennessee to close what has been the most successful season in program history.

Game One: Central Arkansas – 15, LIU – 0

Speaking of history, Morgan Nelson made some in game one, setting a new program record with her 13th and 14th home runs of the season. Her record-breaking 13th was part of a massive 13-run inning, which came three runs shy of tying the NCAA record for runs in a single inning of a regional.

The first inning could not have been more picture perfect, with the Bears scoring ten runs before the Sharks were able to record a single out. Tremere Harris opened with a walk, and back-to-back singles by Kylie Griffin and Madi Young loaded the bases. Mary Kate Brown reached on a fielder’s choice, but the throw home was dropped, allowing two runs to pass home plate. With runners on the corners, Brown was able to steal second on the threat of allowing Young score from third. Morgan Nelson smashed a double to left center, sending both runners home to stretch the lead to four, forcing a pitching change.

Jaylee Engelkes walked, and McKayla Betts followed it up with a bunt single, reloading the bases. Josie Willingham and Jenna Wildeman both took 3-1 walks, putting two more runs home to add to the lead, and the Sharks made a second pitching change.

Back to the top of the order, Harris walked again, scoring another run, the seventh of the inning. Harris reached on a fielder’s choice that resulted in no outs, scoring yet another run. Young walked another run home. The Sharks finally got their first out of the inning on Brown’s next plate appearance, but still gave up a run on a sacrifice fly. Griffin and Young pulled a delayed steal to get Young home after the defense threw to second, marking the 11th run of the first inning. Nelson came to the plate with a runner on second, already with an extra base hit. Battling to a 2-2 count, the redshirt junior dbashed her way into the record book with her 13th home run of the season, a two-RBI bomb to center field, runs 12 and 13 of the inning.

Finally getting to the plate, LIU mustered a single walk before having to go back out to play more defense, trailing 13-0 after a single inning of work.

Nelson came back around as the second batter of the third inning, making her third plate appearance of the afternoon. The first baseman saw one pitch before demolishing a second, no-doubt home, this one to left field, extending her new record one more bomb. Not content at 14 runs, Jaylee Engelkes added one more in the fifth inning, blasting her own home run down the right field line, sneaking one over the wall to cap the scoring at 15. Kayla Beaver tossed a two-hit shutout, her 11th of the season. The Jackson, Tenn., native struck out four and walked one putting three on base across five innings.

Game Two: Central Arkansas – 0, Middle Tennessee – 3

Facing Middle Tennessee for a second time in as many days, the Bears were hoping that some of the offensive firepower from the first game would carry over after Friday’s performance against the Blue Raiders.

And for a while, it looked as though there would be some movement down the lineup, as Madi Young and Mary Kate Brown reached base on a single and a walk to establish a runner in scoring position with two outs. But the MTSU defense was able to get out of the jam, keeping Central Arkansas without a run. Likewise, the Blue Raiders reached base once in the bottom of the first, but a double-play from Jenna Wildeman to Young ended the first without a threat.

The teams would struggle back and forth through the fourth inning, when a walk and a sharply hit single down the left line plated the first run of the game, in favor of MTSU. Again in the fifth, Middle Tennessee scored two more runs on three-straight hits with two outs, stretching the Bears’ deficit to three. But over the last two innings, Central Arkansas was only able to get one runner on base, a four-pitch walk by Tremere Harris in the seventh. But without supporting at bats around her, the Bears’ season came to an end, with MTSU stamping itself as just the third team all season to beat Central Arkansas twice. Jordan Johnson, despite taking the loss, pitched a great game; she had the changeup working and struck out six batters while allowing just four hits.

But the season as a whole should be viewed as nothing but a success, with countless milestones and achievements set and reached by the Bears in 2023. The 45 wins this season shattered the previous record, and came with a number of high-stakes, high-profile victories. Central Arkansas not only defeated Arkansas for the first time ever, but doubled down and swept the Razorbacks as well, claiming games on both teams’ fields. The season saw wins over seven wins over NCAA Regional teams, including Pac-12 Champion Utah.

In just its second season in the ASUN, Central Arkansas claimed both the regular season and the conference tournament titles, putting together six sweeps in eight series, and losing only two games. In the ASUN Championships, the Bears gutted out five wins in three days, playing inspired softball through just about as many circumstances as the universe could throw their way. The success came with the first national ranking in program history, reaching the mid-teens in various polls across the country, and a program-best 16 in the RPI. The future of the Central Arkansas softball program rests in good hands, and the future should be bright after what has been a spectacular 2023.