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SAA CHAMPIONS! Softball wins conference crown with four Saturday victories

CONWAY, Ark.—Rallying back with five straight elimination game wins, the Birmingham-Southern softball team won the 2014 Southern Athletic Association championship tonight in Conway, Ark., with two late-night wins against Berry College.

The Panthers, who move to 29-18 with today's victories, won four games today to clinch the SAA crown, defeating host Hendrix, 4-0, Millsaps, 10-1 in six innings, and then Berry, 6-5 and 6-3. The tournament schedule was compressed to two days instead of three due to the threat of severe weather on Sunday, but the second-seeded Panthers battled from the loser's bracket after losing to Millsaps yesterday to defeat the top-seeded Vikings.

BSC used its all-star pitching duo of junior Bethany Fronk and freshman Taylor Harkins, the 2014 SAA Pitcher of the Year, for all 27 innings of softball today. The duo split time in the final game this evening, with Harkins starting and going 3.1 innings, giving up six hits and three earned runs with one strikeout, before Fronk came in for the final 3.2 and shut the Vikings down offensively, striking out three batters in the process.

In the first game today, BSC eliminated fifth-seeded Hendrix from the tournament with a 4-0 shutout. Junior Hannah Harris RBI singled in the top of the second to plate junior Alyssa Statham, and the lead was increased to 2-0 in the top of the fifth when BSC scored on a dropped fly ball in the outfield. The Panthers scored their final runs of the game in the top of the sixth on a Harris sacrifice fly-out and an RBI single from freshman Alex Skene. Harkins threw the complete game, allowing eight hits in the shutout. Statham was 2-4 at the plate, and Harris led with two RBI.

Third-seeded Millsaps was the next team to fall as the Panthers won 10-1 against the Majors, retaliating for yesterday's loss which sent BSC into the elimination bracket. Although the Majors scored the first run of the game in the top of the second, the Panthers took over after that, scoring four in the bottom of the third courtesy of a Statham two-RBI single and a two-RBI double by Harris. Harris was responsible for two more runs in the bottom of the fifth when she sent the ball over the left-center field fence, putting BSC up 6-1. In the bottom of the sixth, with two outs on the board, Fronk RBI doubled and freshman Maddie Ridgway RBI singled to push the lead to 8-1, followed by a two-run walk-off home run by Statham to end the game early. Fronk pitched the complete game and allowed six hits, one earned run, and three walks with one strikeout. Ridgway and Statham were both 3-4 at the dish, and Statham and Harris each had a game-high four RBI.

In a replay of the battle for the regular season title, the Panthers found themselves facing two games against Berry once again, and needing to win both to clinch the championship. In the first game between the two teams this evening, BSC struck early, scoring in the top of the first on an RBI fielder's choice by Harris to plate Ridgway. Harris picked up another RBI in the top of the third on a double to bring freshman Torrie Garner home, but the lead was short-lived as Berry scored three in the bottom of the fourth to pull up 3-2. The Panthers answered with a big fifth inning, scoring four runs courtesy of yet another Harris RBI single, a two-RBI single from junior Taylor Bassett, and a Skene RBI single. The Vikings rallied in the bottom of the sixth, scoring twice to cut the BSC lead to 6-5 before the Panthers turned a double play to end the inning. After a scoreless top of the seventh, the Vikings put runners on second and third before an infield pop fly gave BSC the win to force another game. Fronk threw her second-straight complete game, giving up 13 hits and four earned runs with two walks and three strikeouts. Skene was 2-3 and Harris was 2-4, and Harris led with three RBI.

In the final deciding game of the championship, the Panthers pulled out to a 4-0 lead in the top of the second off a two-RBI single from freshman Taylor Brewer, a Fronk RBI single, and a run scored on a Berry error. A Bassett RBI ground-out in the top of the third put BSC up 5-0, and a Ridgway RBI single in the top of the fourth expanded the lead to 6-0 in what would be BSC's final run of the game. Berry was able to score three in the bottom of the fourth, but the Panthers went on to retire nine of the next 10 Viking batters to clinch the championship. Fronk picked up the win in the final game, and now stands at 17-11 on the season, while Harkins stands at 11-7.

Fronk, Statham, Harris, and Harkins were all named to the All-Tournament Team Saturday evening after the conclusion of the final game.