The Gamecocks clinched the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in this week’s OVC tournament on the final day of the regular season with a 13-0, five-inning rout of Tennessee State.
JSU entered the weekend needing to win two more games against TSU than Morehead State did against champion UT Martin to gain the coveted bye. Each series ended in a sweep.
The Gamecocks (27-17, 13-6) were on their way to clinching the bye even before Ashley Eliasson threw the game’s first pitch, as UT Martin had opened a 3-0 lead in its game. The Gamecocks have been the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the conference tournament every year since 2005.
“This was a goal of ours,” said senior centerfielder Hillary Downs, whose fourth-inning grand slam put the Gamecocks over the top for the run-rule win. “If we couldn’t get first, we wanted to get second. We set that goal for ourselves and we achieved it (Sunday).
“We knew we could do it. It was rough at first, but we had no doubt we would get there eventually.”
It has been a season-long climb to secure the coveted bye.
Seven weeks ago, the Gamecocks — the preseason OVC favorites — were in eighth place. And every time the players gathered, coach Jana McGinnis and the staff made sure they knew just how far they had to go. They posted the standings on a dry-erase board and erected a banner they hung at the front of the team bus.
“I wanted them to visually see where we’ve never been,” McGinnis said. “We had never been in eighth place and I wanted them to see that every day.
“I just wanted it to be in their minds. It was no secret — they get on the computer — but I wanted them to have to look at it, to see what a mountain we had to climb.
“What was good was after every series they would see that we made a step. We took a step up. The girls phrased it as we’re clawing our way back up. They were very confident about it. They did what they had to.”
Unaware what was transpiring in Morehead a time zone away on Sunday, Nikki Prier put the Gamecocks on top with a solo home run in the first inning. The Gamecocks batted around in the second and the fourth innings, scoring six runs each time.
It was their ninth win in the past 10 games, and they’ve gone 8-0 in league games since splitting a doubleheader with Morehead on April 10.
Prier had two hits, two RBIs and scored three runs in the final home game of her JSU career. Mary Beth Ledbetter had two hits and Downs had five RBIs.
“You always want to go out of the regular season strong so you can take it into the tournament, and that’s what we plan on doing,” Downs said. “We plan on taking the good hitting that we had (Sunday), the good defense and the good pitching, we plan on taking it all to the tournament next week. That’s the most exciting thing about all of this. The way we ended.”
The Gamecocks will open the tournament against the Morehead-Tennessee Tech winner on Thursday at 4 p.m. Top-seeded host UT Martin will play the Eastern Illinois-Murray State winner at 6:30 p.m.