Jim McLaughlin, Sports Editor
The Utica College softball team swept Elmira College last weekend, which earned them a spot in the Empire 8 conference tournament.
Sophomore Brittany Meka started the first game on the mound for the Pioneers against the Soaring Eagles. Meka has had a successful sophomore season as she ranks tenth in the Empire 8 in earned run average (3.08).
Senior Cassie Smith started the scoring for UC as she brought in fellow classmate Alysa Russell to take a 1-0 lead. Senior Stephanie Siriano then launched a ball over the fence for her first home run of the season and extended the lead to 3-0.
The Pioneers held the lead most of the game until the top of the seventh inning when Elmira tied the game 4-4 to bring it to extra innings. The Soaring Eagles started the top of the eighth inning with a triple and then a home run. Elmira went into the bottom of the eighth looking to close the game out with a 7-4 lead, but UC did not walk away quietly.
The Pioneers were down to their last out with one runner on base and freshman Nicole Rice blasted a two-run home run over the fence to cut the lead down to one run. Smith and Siriano hit a pair of singles to bring up sophomore Sabrina Stranksy, who won the game on a three-run home run in walk-off fashion 9-7.
Meka, who finished with a season-high eight strikeouts, thought the team responded well when they needed to the most.
“The team responded just how we needed them to,” Meka said. “It was awesome to see the bats come out when we needed them too. Also it was really good feeling knowing that I had back up when Elmira scored those last runs against me.”
Rice started the comeback for the Pioneers off her home run. Even though she is a freshman, she has proven to be a key part of the team as she leads the team in RBIs (24) and in doubles (11).
“Rice brings a positive attitude to every game,” Smith said. “She works hard on and off the field and is always open to receive help to get better.”
The Pioneers had their ace, senior Abby Monroe, for the second game of the series. Monroe leads the team in strikeouts and ERA this season.
Elmira had a 1-0 lead after the top of the second inning, but fortunately for UC, it was their only lead of the game. Sophomore Kimberly Beattie’s two-run single in the bottom of the second gave the Pioneers a 3-1 lead. Monroe settled down on the mound, as she pitched seven innings and had 11 strikeouts on the day. Rice continued to swing the bat well in the second game as she drove in two runs in the bottom of the fifth and sixth innings.
UC completed the sweep against Elmira, defeating them 7-2, which brings them back into the playoff picture after missing the postseason last year. The postseason has been a goal for the Pioneers all year and to see it become a reality is surreal for the team.
“The feeling of being back in the Empire 8 Tournament is indescribable,” Smith said. “We have worked for this since the first practice at 6 a.m. in the dome.”
The addition of new players to the team has improved the team as they currently have a 21-13 overall record after finishing last season 18-16.
“The difference from last year’s team to this year’s team is new faces,” Smith said. “We have a young team. They brought a new chemistry to the team that has brought us closer together.”
While this year’s team has been littered with new faces, the veterans have also had a lasting impact on the program.
“I feel like I was part of a transformation that happened here,” Smith said. “I was part of the class that got the softball team going in the right direction. It’s a great feeling knowing you left a mark on the program.”
UC has three more double-headers left in the regular season before the postseason starts. They will look to continue their winning streak, which is at eight and get ready for the tournament.
“Everyone wants to win and the energy that everyone has this year is very positive,” Meka said.
Featured image; Head coach Pat Mineo congratulates sophomore Sabrina Stransky after she hits a walk-off home run for the Pioneers. UC swept Elmira on Saturday, clinching a spot in the Empire 8 conference tournament in the process. Photo by ucpioneers.com.