UNIVERSITY CENTER, Mich. – For two hours late Saturday (May 14), Ashland pitcher Emlyn Knerem (Brunswick, Ohio) and her counterpart, Northern Kentucky's April Ehlers, danced through the raindrops.
That's not a figure of speech. That's fact.
When this tango was complete with a 1-0 AU victory in an elimination game in the NCAA Midwest Regional Softball Tournament, no one could tell if the teams were shedding tears, or if that was just the persistent rain that was rolling down the players' faces.
On Friday, on the opening day of the tournament, it was 80 degrees and players were wiping perspiration off the brow. Now, 24 hours later, it was 51 degrees with the wind chill in the low 40's and it was precipitation that was on the forehead.
Thanks to the pitching of Knerem and the hitting of third baseman Alyssa Kelley (Mentor, Ohio), the Eagles (33-18) eliminated Northern Kentucky and moved into another elimination scenario against Indianapolis, the second overall seed in the region. Indy lost on Saturday, 4-1 to Saginaw Valley State. AU and Indy played into the second inning on Saturday evening before the game was suspended with the Greyhounds in front, 5-0.
As for the NKU game, both Knerem and Ehlers were partnered with trouble all day. When the two pitchers got the ball over the plate, they were fine. But neither had the control they would have liked. Knerem threw her 40th pitch in the second inning and she reached 100 pitches in the fourth inning.
"I didn't have the rhythm or control I had yesterday," admitted Knerem, comparing this outing to Friday's 1-0 loss to Indianapolis. "I don't know when I had a game like this, it's been a long time."
Knerem should not spend a long time lamenting what she did not possess. What she did have was her usual speed and ability to deliver her best pitches in crucial situations. The only hit she allowed was a one-out, fourth-inning single to center by first baseman Natalie Papi. Knerem retired the last 10 batters she faced. She walked four and struck out seven. The junior is 26-8 and she has tied the school single-season record for victories. She shares the mark with Josie Nelson (2003) and Natalie Pry (1998).
"She pitched a great game, especially everything she had to go through," said AU head coach Sheilah Gulas. "They really didn't hit a lot of balls hard, we had a lot of routine plays."
There were some other plays that weren't so elementary. As the game progressed the wind increased and what started as a light rain became hard and consistent. Fly balls would start in one direction and quickly change flight.
"The whole idea was just to keep your feet moving," said Gulas, when asked what she told her players in the field.
Ehlers (13-10), like Knerem, found that there wasn't much give in the strike zone. The NKU pitcher walked five and struck out seven. She entered the game with five wild pitches on the year. She threw four in this game. Maybe that had to do with the pressure of facing the Eagles in a do-or-die game. Maybe it had to do with a ball that got a little more slick with every inning.
"I felt fine," emphasized Knerem, "but the ball would get sticky and you couldn't let go of it."
While Ehlers struggled with her control, she, like Knerem was tough to time when she got the ball across the plate. Ashland had just four hits, Two of those came from Kelley. AU has six hits in the two complete tournament games and Kelley has three of those.
Against NKU, Kelley drove in the game's lone run, whacking a double to left field to bring home center fielder Lyndsey Brandt (Painesville, Ohio/Riverside). That shot came with one out in the third inning. Brandt had opened the inning with a walk, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by shortstop Bri Woody (Cleveland, Ohio/Magnificat) and advanced to third on a wild pitch.
AU had a chance to score more in the third. After Kelley's double, designated player Logan Hursey (Zanesville, Ohio/John Glenn) singled to get Kelley to third. The Eagles attempted a sacrifice bunt to get Kelley home, but second baseman Cayla Seidler (Massillon, Ohio/Washington) popped the pitch up to Ehlers, who caught the ball and doubled Kelley off of third.
NKU (29-17) took a doubleheader from AU earlier this season and in those two games, hit the ball with the authority. However, the Norse has struggled to find any punch recently. In its last six games, NKU has 13 hits. But the Norse had a good plan in place to try and overcome that against AU. Northern Kentucky showed great patience at the plate and made Knerem work hard for each out. The first batter of the game, shortstop Jessica Harris, had an 11-pitch at-bat before she drew a walk. Her second at-bat also resulted in a walk after a lengthy appearance at the plate.
"Different approach," said Knerem. "She (Farris) took a swing at one ball that I thought was a foot outside and fouled it off."
The Eagles have no margin of error left on Sunday. To win this tournament and advance to the Super Regional, they must win two and a half games. They must rally to beat Indy, and then win twice against Saginaw Valley State, which is 2-0 this week. That's a tall order, especially for a team that's not struggling to score runs.
"I don't think we're doing the little things, I don't think we're executing the little things," said Gulas. "To win this regional you've got to be sharp."
If the Eagles' execution hasn't been cutting edge, there is nothing wrong with their mental approach. No player coming off the diamond late Saturday was conceding defeat and all promised they would be ready when the Indianapolis games resumes at 10 a.m. Sunday.
"You feel a little," replied Knerem, when asked if she feels added pressure to perform at this stage of the season. "It can be tough when you have the ball in your hand and know what can happen if you make a mistake. It could be the seniors' last game. You want to go out and send them out right."