W&J ready for first NCAA softball tournament

May 8, 2014
The Presidents’ Madison Rotto has a .360 batting average and a team-best 1.93 ERA. - Photo courtesy of Washington & Jefferson

When Nicole Vitello gets situated in the dugout for today’s first-round game against top-seeded Trine in the NCAA Division III softball tournament, she might want a box of antacids within reach.

The head coach of the Washington & Jefferson College softball team has had some nail-biting moments leading to today’s game in Angola, Ind., site of this regional tournament.

The Presidents (25-10) earned their first appearance in the NCAA tournament by winning their final four games by a total of six runs, which included two 1-0 games in last weekend’s Presidents’ Athletic Conference tournament in Crestview Hills, Ky., home of the Thomas More Saints.

“This team has surprised me with their mental toughness,” said Vitello, who was named Coach of the Year by the PAC this week. “There have been a lot of games we won when we were (trailing). A lot of times, we came back in the sixth or seventh inning.”

W&J scored the last three runs in a 13-10 win over Penn State-Behrend, four in the seventh inning of an 8-6 victory over Grove City, the last six runs in an 8-4 win over Westminster, six of the last seven runs in a 7-6 victory over Dubuque and two in the bottom of the seventh in a 7-6 win over Otterbein.

So beating Geneva 6-3 in the finals that wrapped up the conference title and earned the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament seemed like a rout.

“These girls just never give up,” Vitello said.

W&J has used a powerful hitting attack to pounce on tiring pitchers in the late innings. Led by shortstop Kelsey Cunningham’s .378 average, the Presidents have five players batting over .300 and have a team batting average of .318, remarkable in a sport dominated by pitching.

Cunningham, a Peters Township graduate and leadoff hitter, leads the team in average, home runs (4), runs (31), hits (48), doubles (13), total bases (73) and has an on-base percentage of .419. With each hit, she extends the school record she set this season for career base hits. She also set school records this season for doubles (47) and runs (118).

First baseman Madison Rotto has a .360 average and is coming off a PAC tournament where she went 6-for-12 (.452). She also started 13 games and leads the pitching staff with a 1.93 ERA.

“They are our only two seniors, so they provide the senior leadership” Vitello said. “They show the other players with their play on the field.”

Trine has a 37-3 record and a remarkable 42 home runs this season. Outfielder Kaitlyn Clark leads the team with 14, which is as many as the Trine pitching staff allowed all season. Bree Fuller has a 21-1 record and 1.42 ERA.

“I know they are a tough team,” said Vitello. “They are a strong hitting team with lots of home runs. We just have to keep their hits to a minimum.”

Thomas More (30-10) received an at-large bid out of the PAC and will play the University of Chicago (25-8) in a first-round game in Chicago. The Saints are the No. 3 seed and Chicago No. 2. No. 4 Benedictine plays top-seeded Wisconsin-Whitewater in the second game the day’s doubleheader.

Vulcans ready for Division II tournament

If it’s May, that means the California University women’s softball team is preparing for another NCAA Division II tournament.

The Vulcans (35-5) will be making their seventh straight appearance in the tournament and will host the four-team regional at Lilley Field today. Cal takes on Winston Salem State in a 1 p.m. game. Bloomsburg battles West Chester in a 3 p.m. game.

“We’re playing well at the right time,” said Cal coach Rick Bertagnolli. “This group possess a unique quality.”

The Vulcans are coming off three straight one-win victories, none more dramatic than the 4-3 win over Shippensburg when catcher Natalie Wideman hit a solo home run to lead off the bottom of the sixth inning. In the previous game, first baseman Lindsay Reicoff hit a two-run, walk-off homer to down Shippensburg, 5-4, in the first game of the conference finals. Third baseman Shelby Lia put Cal into the conference finals with a walk-off single in the seventh inning that produced a 3-2 victory over Indiana.

“This team is so composed and have a will to win,” said Bertagnolli, who has led Cal into the national tournament in 18 of his 21 seasons as head coach. “Even when we were behind in those games, it really didn’t feel like it.”

Cal has one of its most powerful offenses, with seven players hitting .300 or better. Wideman leads the team with an eye-popping .458 average and Reicoff has 10 of the team’s 48 home runs. Shortstop Breanna Morris, a Waynesburg High School graduate, has a .426 average and leads the team with 12 doubles.

“They is a feeling of family and togetherness on this team,” said Bertagnolli. “When you compete like a family, everything heightens. They pick each other up and they help each other.”

Alex Sagl, who will start Game 1, has a 23-3 record and 1.40 ERA. She has 169 strikeouts in 140 innings.

Winston Salem State is making its third straight appearance in the tournament and won the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Conference.

Junior third baseman Katrina Bartlett had a conference-best 10 home runs and a team-high 32 RBI and eight steals. Her .406 average ranked second on the team. Freshman pitcher Mercedes Hargett is 14-6 with a 2.45 ERA and has 117 strikeouts in 125 innings.

Joe Tuscano has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1980. He has covered all sports for the newspaper, including the Steelers, Pirates, Pitt football, local college football and wrestling. He has worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Jeannette News-Dispatch and North Hills Record. He graduated from Duquesne University in 1980.

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