Softball earns first regional berth since 2012

Junior pitcher Blake Neleman winds up to release a pitch in Tech’s win over Wisconsin in Tech’s first regional berth since 2012. Neleman’s complete game, one run outing led the Jackets to the regional win. // Photo courtesy of GTAA

After a stellar regular season and an ACC quarterfinals appearance, Tech softball advanced to NCAA Regional play for the first time since 2012. The Jackets were dominant at home and on weekdays during the regular season, securing a 24–6 mark at Shirley Clements Mewborn Field and winning every single game played from Monday–Thursday before the ACC tournament.

While struggling against the ACC’s top teams, they played most of the season’s series close and earned a couple of ranked wins on the year, including a run-rule win over No. 16 Georgia in Athens. After finishing 11–13 in ACC play, Tech earned the seventh seed in the conference tournament and dispatched NC State in the opening round 4–2. A matchup against No. 9 Duke ended in a 9–6 loss for the Jackets as a late comeback fell short, but the team looked to Selection Sunday hoping that their resume would be enough to secure an at-large bid.

The selection committee gave Tech the nod for the first time in a decade, placing them as the two-seed in the Gainesville Regional. The host Gators held the top seed in the group, with Wisconsin and Canisius rounding them out. Tech was set to face the Badgers in the opening game as the second and third seeds. Regional play is in double-elimination format, with the last team standing advancing to the Super Regional round. The Gainesville Regional opened at 3 p.m. on Friday, May 20 with Tech as the home team against Wisconsin. The Jackets opened the scoring with sophomore infielder Jin Sileo driving in senior outfielder Kennedy Cowden in the second inning. Graduate first baseman Tricia Awald doubled Tech’s lead when her sacrifice fly drove in senior infielder Bailee Zeitler. Wisconsin would score their lone run in the fourth, but junior pitcher Blake Neleman limited them to one as she allowed only three hits in a complete game win. Neleman struck out nine, giving her more strikeouts than baserunners allowed. The Jackets’ 2–1 win set them up with a showdown against No. 14 overall seed Florida the following day. Inclement weather stretched the Florida matchup into a whole-afternoon affair. Neleman could not replicate her magic from the day before as the Gators racked up five runs in 3.2 innings, leading 5–1 when the junior left the mound. Senior pitcher Lexi Ray allowed two more runs in 1.1 innings as Florida stretched the lead to six. Freshman pitcher Sophia Voyles tossed a scoreless sixth, but Tech’s bats stayed quiet and the Jackets fell 7–1. Tech only mustered four hits on the day, with Awald driving in Zeitler for their single run. Zeitler was the only Jacket to reach base twice as Florida’s fielders cleaned up nearly everything put in play. The loss set up a second game with Wisconsin after the Badgers eliminated Canisius later on the evening of May 21. The matchup with Wisconsin was Tech’s biggest game in ten years, with loser-go-home stakes and another shot at Florida for the winner. The Badgers jumped to a 2–0 lead after two frames, but Tech would score six runs in the fifth and sixth innings to pull ahead 6–2. The Jackets held a two run lead entering the final frame, but two more runs and a bases-loaded situation with no outs pushed Tech to the brink. Voyles entered and forced two outs, but a walk sent the game-winning run home, ending the Institute’s season in a heartbreaker, 7–6. Freshman designated player Emma Minghini led Tech at the plate, driving in three runs and recording one of four multihit days for the Jackets. Sileo and junior catcher Emma Kauf each had two hits and an RBI as Tech doubled Wisconsin’s hit total, but opportunistic hitting by the Badgers and a seventh inning jam spelled disaster. Ray was the brightest spot for the Jacket pitching corps, recording three hitless, scoreless innings in relief. Despite the tough end to the season, Tech secured their best record since 2011 and ended the season on a 22–9 run. Awald and Kauf were selected to the NFCA Southeast Second Team All-Region. Awald led the country in walks per game and was third in on-base percentage, while Kauf finished top-three in the ACC in hits and total bases. While six players are set to graduate, the Jackets are set to return their top three pitchers by ERA and the bulk of their hitting lineup. They outscored their opponents on the year by an average of two runs, and are set up for another strong year in 2023.