Top of the sixth. Samford University right-hander Mollie Hanson — the Southern Conference’s Pitcher of the Year — stood under the spring sun, tanned as the softball diamond. Two outs, two on, one runner in scoring position on third. Her eyes unreadable, hidden by reflective shades, the redshirt senior coughed into her fist, picked up a dash of red-clay dirt, let the excess fall away as she twirled the neon-green softball in her cupped hand. Just like every other pitch.
You couldn’t have asked more from May 14 — sunny and 75 degrees, a few plops of wafting cumulus in the baby-blue sky. The Southern Conference softball championship game, hosted at UNCG’s softball field, pitted the top-seed Samford Bulldogs against No. 2-seed Furman University Paladins.
Hanson took the mound first, her Bulldogs in the field. She looked confident, ready.
But then Furman shortstop Sieara Bishop smacked a double to right-centerfield. Second baseman Hannah Reynolds turned a long at-bat into a base hit off a skittering grounder bobbled by Samford shortstop Lexi Higgins. Imposing lefty pitcher Lindsey Bert knocked a grounder between Bishop’s legs into right field.
Like that, the bases were loaded.
The team met Hanson at the mound. Tense silence.
Hanson stayed on.
“Come on, Mollie!” a Samford fan shouted three times. “Dig in!”
And she did: With two fingers, she excavated a pinch of dirt from the mound, rubbing it over the surface of the neon-green ball.
Paladin right fielder Candace Johnson, Furman’s home-run leader with 15 on the season, stepped up to the plate next, trying to make magic happen. She got a base hit, but only because the defense threw out Bishop at home.
Hanson next faced first baseman AnnaRose Borrelli — with 13 homers, consider her Lou Gehrig to Johnson’s Babe Ruth. But Hanson dispatched her swinging on the third strike.
Then, designated player Elise Smith chipped a slow, shallow line drive straight into Bulldog third baseman Callie Brister’s glove.
Hanson and her defense had held off the aggressive Paladins.
The Bulldogs scored single runs in the bottom of the first and second. In the meantime, their defense shut down Furman in the first four innings.
As Furman and their fans watched nervously, the Samford dugout, led by utility player Emily Small, roared chants endlessly.
“Hit it, rip it, knock it out!”
“Lexi got a big ol’ bat!”
“Get that junk outta here, get that junk outta here, get YO’ junk OUTTA HERE!”
For her part, Hanson quietly recorded two more strikeouts. And she kept sneaking those tiny handfuls of dried clay.
Even after Furman third baseman Hannah Reynolds slammed a homer over the centerfield fence at the top of the fifth, making the score 2-1 and breathing new life into Furman’s chances, Hanson entrenched herself.
After Furman shut down the next three Samford batters in the bottom of that inning, the sea of purple in the right-field stands arose and chanted their own call-and-response.
“All the time!”
Hanson didn’t hear as she reassumed her position. She just kept rubbing dirt into that ball.
After two easy outs, Paladin Elise Smith once again hunkered in the batter’s box. For the first time, Hanson’s throws went a bit wild, one foul called after the pitch tapped the bat behind Smith’s helmet. Hanson then beaned Smith — her only walk — and pinch runner Lauren Duggar took over at first base.
Catcher Emma Ogburn smacked a single, safely on-base thanks to an error at first. Duggar dashed to third base, priming herself in scoring position.
Leftfielder Taylor Collins took a long at-bat, popup foul after popup foul.
“Come on, 2-0, hit it, bay-bee, hit it!” a Furman fan yelled.
It all happened quick.
Hanson threw another wild pitch. As catcher Abby Sweeney fumbled for the ball, Duggar shot down the third-base line like a 9mm bullet. Hanson, formerly monolithic at her mound, darted forward to cover home, in front of Sweeney, arguably obstructing Duggar’s path.
“Out!” grunted umpire Ricky Sexton.
Cheers and boos erupted in stereo.
“Pitcher’s in the way, ump!” one Furman fan screamed.
The chip cracked the Paladin faithful’s shoulder for the rest of the inning. Shouts of, “That’s terrible, Blue!” and “You need to go home, Blue!” rang out even as their defense retired the Samford side.
Controversial as that call may have been, Hanson stepped in when needed. She could’ve held back and not risked injury from Duggar’s slide, but her position kept the runner from evening the score and the game’s odds.
Furman did pull ahead, 3-2, in the next inning. But after Samford designated player Hannah Trombley shot a solo homer just over the leftfield fence forcing extra innings, Hanson kept cool. Two consecutive flyouts at the top of the eighth, and she struck out Ogburn swinging. Still taking bits of dirt in her hand. Every pitch.
After Bulldogs second baseman Abbie Miranda singled and Brister rounded third, teeth bared, Furman’s Bert didn’t cover like Hanson had, and Brister glided safely home, kicking up a huge red cloud. Samford had won their first SoCon championship, 4-3.
And the conference named stoic Hanson the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player.