Fun & Games: Spartans shake it off

Designated player Nicole Thomas slugs UNCG to victory. (courtesy Tim Cowie)

by Anthony Harrison

Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” spat out of UNCG Softball Stadium’s PA speakers on April 9 during the third-inning break. Tiny centerfielder Allison Geiner then recorded the Spartans’ first hit in the front end of this double-header against the visiting Mercer Bears in UNCG’s Southern Conference homecoming. Even that base hit came challenged as Mercer first baseman Katie Peterson caught the high throw only by vaulting off the bag, granting Geiner a wrinkle in time.

The Spartans needed Swift’s vote of confidence.

Before that hit, the Bears had been mauling the Spartans. They went on a five-run streak in the first anda six-run tear in the second, then scored again in the third. All the while, Mercer right-hander Maxine Rodriguez and her fielders shut down the venerable UNCG batting order. The hyped Mercer dugout roared the entire game as UNCG nearly exhausted their bullpen attempting to halt the Bears’ charge.

The Spartans’ uncharacteristically poor fielding aided Mercer’s offensive spurts; they officially recorded two errors in the first two innings and suffered from many bumbles, bobbles and miscues.

“This was not typical Spartan play,” UNCG head coach Janelle Breneman said after the game. “We didn’t start well, didn’t compete and couldn’t turn it around.”

The Spartans eventually scored in the fourth and fifth innings, but the Bears led 15-2 by that point. A mercy rule ended the game at the bottom of the fifth. Only 30 minutes later, the two teams would face off all over again.

Demoralizing losses affect teams differently depending on the sport. In football, you often have an entire week to patch up and regroup. In basketball, you might have a few days. But in bat sports, there’s rarely time to shake off defeat, causing slumps; double-headers can lead to two losses in a single day.

But the right coach can rally the troops to advance once more unto the breach.

“In this sport, with double-headers, you have to have a short memory,” Coach Breneman said. “My whole focus [during the break] was telling the girls they’re great softball players. They just had to control, attack and play like great softball players — to swing and compete on every pitch.”

Breneman’s speech reminded the Spartans to play above their competition — at their own level — in Game 2.

In a stark reversal of recent misfortune, freshman phenom pitcher Stephanie Bryden hushed Mercer’s bats to a whisper in the first two innings; she downed six Bears by the end of hostilities. On the other hand, Mercer’s defense lagged, allowing Spartan catcher Lindsay Thomas to record her 230th career hit; that double tied the all-time UNCG hitting record, which she broke in the bottom of the fifth with a deep single.

Despite the Bears launching runs in the third and fourth innings, the Spartans didn’t fold. Leftfielder Kendall McKinney chipped a two-run bomb just over the centerfield fence — her fourth straight game with a homer — tying the score at the bottom of the fourth.

But the end of that inning witnessed tragedy.

Geiner, an invaluable defensive presence, dislocated her shoulder with a hard slide back into first base after Mercer pitcher Megan Bilgri caught her far off the bag. The UNCG dugout, which had originally harnessed the energy the Bears exhibited in Game 1, fell silent as the Spartan spitfire failed to rise from her prone position.

Though mourning their wounded comrade, the Spartans refused to fall. In fact, Geiner’s injury only steeled their will.

UNCG mounted a decisive stop against the Bears in the sixth, capped by a pivotal Bryden strikeout to end the top with two runners on base. They rolled with the punch after Mercer designated player Lindsay Boynton retook the lead with a solo home run in the top of the final, seventh inning, halting runners in scoring position.

The Spartans had a last chance for redemption.

They loaded the bases at the expense of two outs. Then, hard-hitting designated player Nicole Thomas — Lindsay’s twin — stepped up to the box.

Greensboro was not Mudville; the red-clay diamond too dry. The breeze picked up, a red wind whirling between Thomas and Bears reliever Jill McElderry like in a spaghetti Western.

Before April 9, a stress fracture in Thomas’ foot had benched her for five weeks; losing Geiner provided her with empathetic incentive.

“I thought: I’m gonna win this for Al, no matter what it takes,” Thomas said after the game.

First pitch: Ball 1. McElderry bent down and rubbed some dirt on her pitching fingers.

With the score locked at 3-2 Mercer, time halted as the crowd began considering the improbable: With a .414 batting average and three runners on, could Thomas really do… it?

Second pitch: Yes.

The neon-yellow ball flew over the fence — a walk-off grand slam.

“I just wanted to hit it hard,” Thomas laughed. “Didn’t matter where it went. Then I thought: Oh my god, it worked.”

The dam burst, and the cheering UNCG dugout flooded home plate, bouncing together in a smiling scrum.

The next day, the Spartans again faced Mercer, again won a hard-fought victory, again decided by a Nicole Thomas walk-off hit.

Clearly, the Bears’ initial lopsided win couldn’t shake Spartan resolve.