HARTSVILLE, S.C. --- Sarah Kenley hit a walkoff home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth as Lenoir-Rhyne defeated Tusculum 5-4 in the opening round of the South Atlantic Conference Softball Championship tournament Thursday afternoon at Byerly Park.
The Bears (45-9), seeded second in the tournament and ranked 13th in Division II, tied the game in controversial fashion with two outs in the bottom of the seventh when Pioneer starter Taylor Plemons was ruled to have thrown an illegal pitch. Tusculum (27-24), the seventh seed in the tournament, had overcome a 3-0 deficit with four runs in the top of the sixth before Lenoir-Rhyne was awarded the game-tying run on the call from the third-base umpire.
Tusculum will play Wingate in an elimination game Friday morning at 10:00, while Lenoir-Rhyne advances to face Newberry at 10:00 Friday in a winner's bracket contest. Newberry beat Wingate 3-2 in eight innings in the tournament opener Thursday morning.
The Pioneers trailed 3-0 heading to the top of the sixth against Bears starter Sydney Miller, but strung together four runs on three hits to take the lead. Rachel Wisner led off with a double, took third on a groundout and scored on a single by Jenna Restivo to put the Pioneers on the scoreboard.
After Miller issued a walk to Morgan Mahaffey, Brandi Parks came on in relief but issued walks to Sammie West and Michelle Miller, the latter with the bases loaded to bring the Pioneers within 3-2. Sydney Miller re-entered for Parks and faced Emily Hester, who delivered a two-out, two run single to drive home Mahaffey and West and give Tusculum the lead at 4-3.
Plemons tossed a scoreless sixth, and the Pioneers left two runners on base in the top of the seventh against Miller. In the bottom of the seventh, Erin Boone led off with a walk and Christina Walker reached on an error. Following a sacrifice by Kenley, Sydney Landreth was retired on a foul popup to bring Tusculum within one out of the upset.
But Plemons, who had been called for just one illegal pitch in 155 2/3 innings to that point in the season, was flagged on her first delivery to Madison Poe as Boone jogged home with the tying run. Poe was then retired on a groundout to short to send the game into extra innings.
Tusculum went in order in the top of the eighth, and Plemons worked around a leadoff single by Madison Carter in the bottom of the eighth as the game went to the ninth tied 4-4. Taylor Johnson led off the ninth with a drive to the fence in right-center, but Walker played the carom perfectly and nailed Johnson attempting to stretch the hit into a double.
In the bottom of the ninth, Plemons retired the first two hitters before Kenley, the SAC Player of the Year, hit a 1-1 pitch over the left-field fence for her 10th home run of the season to give the Bears a 5-4 win.
Lenoir-Rhyne opened the scoring with a run in the bottom of the first on a two-out RBI double by Landreth, and added two runs in the fifth as Poe came through with a two-out, two-run single to drive in Boone and Walker. Tusculum's best scoring chance before the sixth inning came in the second, when Taylor Battle led off with a double and West followed with a bunt single. However, Miller retired the side on two ground balls and a foul popup to keep the Bears on top 1-0.
Tusculum finished with an 11-8 edge in hits over Lenoir-Rhyne, including two hits apiece from West, Hester and Restivo. Kenley went 2-for-3 for the Bears and Walker finished 2-for-5 with two runs scored for Lenoir-Rhyne, while Boone was 1-for-4 with a walk and two runs scored.
Plemons (12-13) worked all 8 2/3 innings for the Pioneers and gave up four earned runs on eight hits with five strikeouts and three walks, while tossing 144 pitches. Miller (14-5) also threw 144 pitches for the Bears in 8 2/3 innings, allowing 11 hits and three earned runs with two walks and two strikeouts.