NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A frustrated Paige Neely ran into the dugout and held up her forefinger and thumb about an inch apart.
“I came back in and said to coach, `this close’,” Neely said.
With two outs and two runners on base in the top of the seventh inning Neely came to the plate representing the go ahead run. She hit a fly ball into deep center field that just fell short of the fence.
Had she been successful the Lady Bisons would have headed into the final half of the seventh leading 8-7 over USC Upstate in the Atlantic Sun Championship game at Lipscomb’s Draper Diamond Saturday afternoon.
The Lady Bisons, needing only one win for the tournament championship, lost 4-1 to USC Upstate in game one and 7-5 in game two.
With her face glistening in the late afternoon sun from a combination of tears and perspiration Neely vowed she doesn’t want to forget what it feels like to be on the losing end of the final Atlantic Sun Tournament games.
“I wanted to drive in the runs for my team and for our season,” said Neely as the voice of public address announcer Jim Kiser reverberated in the background as he congratulated the Lady Bisons for their runner-up finish. “I want to remember what this feels like.
“This fall when I am training, and next season, I can remember what this felt like. I can hold onto it. I can use it so I don’t feel like this after a game again.”
The Lady Bisons had entered the championship game with three wins in the tournament, all in their last at bat. It was third time in four seasons they had advanced to the championship game.
“Upstate came ready to play,” Neely said. “We had a lot of heart in this tournament, and not a lot of teams had the same heart that we had. But Upstate came out ready to win and ready to give it everything they had. They matched us in the way we had been fighting.
“We don’t back down from anything even if we are down 20 runs,” Neely said. “We will fight until the very end. And that’s what we did.”
As the No. 4 seed LU had beaten No.2-seeded USC Upstate 4-2 on Friday to send them into the loser’s bracket. USC Upstate advanced to the finals with a 9-2 win over North Florida in the final game Friday night.
USC Upstate was sparked by two first inning home runs over the center field fence against LU in game one.
After the Purple and Gold opened with a two-run home run by Gracey Aguirre, USC Upstate answered with five runs on six hits in the bottom of the first. Included in those hits were a two-run homer, an RBI-triple and a double.
It marked the first time all season the Lady Bisons had lost to a team twice in the same day. There was a feeling of stunned disbelief in the LU dugout at the way the journey to the tournament title was derailed.
LU coach Kristin Ryman felt badly for Neely. It was a scenario every baseball or softball player has visualized while practicing the game on the sandlot or in a back yard. Neely was not only faced with two outs, but the count on her was full at 3-and-2. Everyone has the dream of connecting for the game-winning hit in that situation, but Neely did not realize the dream this time.
“Paige Neely has done it time and time again for us this year,” Ryman said. “She is one player I wanted to be up at the plate at that point.”
Every game was a test of tenacity for the Lady Bisons. But they couldn’t pull off one last rally.
“There were so many times in that second game that I thought we could have rolled over,” Ryman said. “We could have said, `this is too much, we aren’t going to make up this much ground’, but we didn’t give up.”
After losing the first game Ryman told her players that they had to move on because the next game was “winner takes all”.
“They came out a little tight in the first game,” Ryman said. “They were anxious to score first.
“After the first game I told them that they needed to remember there was nothing they could do to change the first game. We had one game left and we needed to give an all-out effort. We had to see that fight that we had seen so many times in this tournament.”
After seeing how tight they were in the first game, Ryman reminded them that softball is a game and they needed to relax and have fun.
“There was nothing to hold back for anymore,” Ryman said. “I told them if we had a lead to enjoy it and if we were down to enjoy it. I wanted them to find ways to stay in the game.”
Freshman pitcher Tanner Sanders, freshman second baseman Brittany Elmore and Aguirre, a sophomore right fielder, were named to the A-Sun All-Tournament Team.
Sanders went the distance in game one. Heather Parker started game two, but Sanders entered the game in relief with one out in the first and completed the game. She struck out three batters in each game.
“I am proud of Tanner for gutting it out and basically throwing two complete games,” Ryman said. “Upstate has been a good hitting group all year. They hit it well against us. Once they see pitching over and over they make adjustments.
“It was a very frustrating way to finish. We had chances. We put ourselves in the position to be where we wanted to be. I hate it for the girls because they fight so hard. It just didn’t go our way.”