By Gene Renfro
Milligan College’s softball team knew the task at hand Friday — win two games for a share of the Appalachian Athletic Conference regular season title.
No. 20 Reinhardt (Ga.) University had other ideas, but the Lady Buffs paid no heed.
Milligan was able to take game one behind a 4-1 score, and game two went to the Lady Buffs behind a 2-0 outcome which put them in a three-way tie for the league’s top spot.
With the results, Milligan, Reinhardt and Tennessee Wesleyan all share the AAC regular-season crown with matching 14-4 records in the league.
However, due to the league’s tiebreakers policy, Milligan will be the No. 2 seed for the AAC Tournament while Reinhardt will occupy third seed. Tennessee Wesleyan was 3-1 head-to-head with Milligan and Reinhardt to take the No. 1 seed. Milligan was 2-2 while Reinhardt went 1-3 during the season against the other co-champions.
“I’m just tickled to death we got the two wins because hopefully that positive feelings going into the tournament,” Milligan head coach Wes Holly said after the sweep. “We’re going to have to beat everyone over there, and hopefully today will be a confidence builder. It was a total team effort.”
Milligan’s opening-round opponent Tuesday will be Columbia (S.C.) College, the No. 7 seed, at 5 p.m. in Kingsport’s Domtar Park. During the regular season the Lady Buffs, now 27-19 overall, defeated Columbia 4-0 and 3-0 on April 14.
“It was huge getting the early lead because it took the pressure off Chancli (Connatser) throwing,” Holly said about the early leads obtained.
The last time Milligan won the AAC regular season title was in 2009. In addition, league history was made as the softball standings had a three-way tie for the first time. Conversely, the regular season crown was shared for the first time since 2007 when Union (Ky.) College and UVa-Wise were co-champions.
The Lady Eagles’ overall record went to 30-11. It was the first time Reinhardt lost both games of a doubleheader since Feb. 28 against Shorter (Ga.) College, ranked No. 9 at the time. Also the Lady Eagles were swept in AAC play for the first time since the program joined the league for the 2010 season. Reinhardt’s AAC Tournament foe in the first round will be Bryan (Tenn.) College.
“Two rain out days, having to push games and finals back, having girls studying all night two nights in a row to get finals,” Reinhardt head coach Glen Crawford said. “They don’t have to take any more, but it doesn’t help having to travel 5.5 hours when you’ve been up all night studying and play two games that are tough, but that’s no excuse. Milligan came out and did what they needed to do to win the game and we didn’t.”
Inside the circle, it was a battle between the top two pitchers in the league. Milligan’s Chancli Connatser entered with a 1.34 ERA, which was second behind Reinhardt’s Maddie Monroe, the AAC Pitcher of the Year the last two seasons, with just a 1.05 ERA. The two are also the tops in the wins and strikeout categories.
Connatser may have outdueled Monroe Friday. The Lady Buff went all seven innings in both games. In the opener, she allowed the lone run on five hits. She let the defense play behind her with just one strikeout. Game two saw Connatser toss her 14th complete game of 2012 with four strikeouts, three walks and just two hits as she retired the last 10 foes in order.
“I was nervous, but I went out there really focused,” Connatser said. “I talked to Coach Holly before the game and he reinsured me that I should really focus on my pitches and rely on my defense and let them work for me, which was my philosophy today.”
“To throw her as much as I have this season, you can’t ask a pitcher to throw two better games,” Holly said about Connatser. “She spotted the ball really well, moved it up and down.”
From Reinhardt, Monroe also threw a complete game in game one, but was tagged for four runs on six hits. She struck out five and walked another.
Monroe made her fourth relief appearance of the season in game two. In 21⁄3 innings of no-hit relief, she struck out three Lady Buffs, but the Lady Eagles bats were clipped by Connatser.
In game one, Reinhardt scored in the opening frame, but Sarah Arrowood’s two-run single to center gave Milligan the lead. Camille Olvey was on after a walk started the frame. She moved up on a sacrifice bunt from Brittany DiRobbio. Krista Lambdin singled through the left side of the infield and later stole second to get into scoring position.
The Lady Buffs struck again with a RBI groundout by Makenzie Lilley in the bottom of the fourth. Maleah Wolfenbarger came in from third on the ball hit to the shortstop.
Emily Biggs uncorked a home run that went out near the foul pole down the left-field line in Milligan’s half of the sixth for an insurance run. It was her fifth home run of 2012, the second most on the squad.
Reinhardt got a 3-for-3 effort from Ashley Kennedy, which included the RBI single from the first inning.
Game 2 started with Milligan taking the lead first. Lambdin lined a single into left where Olvey ran in from second.
Wolfenbarger added a RBI single back up the middle as Lambdin raced in from second with two outs. She started the frame with a lead-off walk before advancing on a sacrifice bunt.
The group of Olvey, Lambdin, Arrowood, Wolfenbarger and Abby Hughes had a hit in each game.
In game 2, Crawford handed the ball to Haley Brannon. She tossed the first 32⁄3 innings and allowed a pair of runs on five hits.
Reinhardt had base runners as seven were stranded on the bases. Four of those Lady Eagle runners were in scoring position. Lindsey Booker and Andrea Thibaudeau had the two hits for the visitors in the finale.
Reinhardt 100 000 0 — 1 5 1
Milligan 200 101 x — 4 6 0
Monroe and Kennedy. Connatser and Arrowood. W—Connatser (21-13). L—Monroe (16-7). HR—Milligan, Biggs.
Reinhardt 000 000 0 — 0 2 1
Milligan 100 100 x — 2 5 1
Brannon, Monroe(4) and Kennedy. Connatser and Arrowood. W—Connatser (22-13). L—Brannon (10-2).