By Kevin Price with Christy Lynn Wilson
Hardeeville, S.C. - Going into this season, the College of Coastal Georgia softball team had put together some good seasons but not one that included a significant championship.
That changed on Saturday when the Mariners came from behind to defeat USC-Beaufort 5-2 in the opening game of their doubleheader to end the regular season.
The victory, highlighted by a three-run seventh inning to break a 2-2 deadlock, clinched the regular-season Sun Conference crown for the Mariners who entered Saturday with a one-game lead over the Sand Sharks in the league standings.
The doubleheader did come to a disappointing finish, though, as the Sharks claimed a 4-3 victory over the Mariners in Game 2. Coastal Georgia still won the season-long competition with the country's 20th-ranked team, adding the Game 1 win to the Mariners' previous two wins against the Sharks earlier in the season.
Now, both the Mariners and Sharks will go into next week's Sun Conference tournament as the top two seeds. The tournament champion will earn the league's automatic berth into the NAIA national championship tournament.
Coastal Georgia finishes the regular season 28-17 overall and 16-8 in the conference. The Mariners were picked to finish eighth in the nine-team league in a preseason poll by the league coaches.
The Sharks close the regular slate with a 37-11 overall ledger and a 15-9 conference mark.
In Saturday's opening game, USCB grabbed the early lead with single runs in the first and second innings. The Sharks could have scored more off Coastal Georgia pitcher Paige Alt who got out of a bases-loaded jam with a strikeout to end the second.
From there, Alt blanked the Sharks who finished with nine hits in the loss but had six of those in the first two innings.
Coastal Georgia plated single runs in the fifth and sixth to tie the score. Kensey Solomon singled in the fifth with two outs to bring home Cevana Wood who singled to lead off the inning. In the sixth, Wood blasted a solo homer to left field to tie the score at 2-2.
In the seventh, the Mariners finished off their comeback with their three-spot after the Sharks stranded two runners on base in the bottom of the sixth.
Breanna Burgett doubled to get things started and pinch runner Morgan Laughin went to second on a sacrifince by Solomon. Coastal Georgia leadoff batter Mary Waldron would follow with a single through the left side to plate Laughlin with the tying run.
Waldron reached second on a subsequent fielding error. She would advance to third on a sacrifice by KailiAnn Sadeski.
That brought Alt to the plate, and with two outs, the Coastal Georgia third batter belted a two-run shot over the fence in left center to bring home Waldron and give the Mariners their three-run advantage. The homer was the conference-best ninth of the season for the junior standout from Schaumburg, Ill.
Back in the circle in the bottom of the inning, Alt gave up a hit to the Sharks' first batter but then recorded three straight outs on a flyball, fielder's choice and ground out back to the circle to close out the biggest victory in program history.
"The girls had great focus and effort on the road," Minick said. "It was a huge win for these girls. Again today, Paige showed why she should be the Sun Conference Player of the Year. She went seven innings in the circle and hit her conference-leading ninth home run in the biggest game of the year.
"Cevana had a big home run to tie it, and then Mary Waldon had the game-winning hit in the seventh."
That was the second safety of the game for Waldron who was 2-for-3 in the opening contest. Wood was 3-for-3 for the Mariners with the game-tying homer and two runs scored.
Alt finished striking out two and walking none as she recorded her 15th win of the season.
Sloan Ducey took the loss for USCB after working into the seventh. She struck out five and walked one while allowing nine hits.
In Game 2, the teams were tied at 2-2 entering the seventh. Coastal Georgia scored the go-ahead run in the top of the inning on a two-out single to right by Sadeski which scored Laughlin who again was a pinch runner.
But, the Sharks would come back with two runs in the bottom of the inning to salvage a split on the day. The tying run scored on a single through the middle and the winning run scored after two wild pitches led to two free bases and the final run for the Sharks.
Ansley Bowen took the loss for the Mariners. She worked the first four innings and then returned to pitch the seventh. She gave up three runs on eight hits while striking out one and walking none.
Katie Williams pitched two scoreless innings for the Mariners in the fifth and sixth.
The Sharks scored their first two runs in the first and fifth innings. The Mariners scored both their runs in the fourth on a two-run homer by Solomon.
Sadeski and Breanna Wells both had two hits for the Mariners in the loss.
Canyon Crosby went the distance in the circle for USCB to get the win.
"It's a great feeling for the girls to experience this success," Minick said of winning the regular-season league crown. "This is great for our program.
"It was a little disappointing to not hold the lead in the bottom of the seventh in the second game, but we played great on the road again. They were 25-1 at home this season.
"This team will practice hard next week and give it everything they can to win the tournament championship."
Original story published on CoastalGeorgiaSports.com.