Mar. 27—JACKSONVILLE — Alex Howard wanted to make sure the moment wasn't too big for her.
Turns out, she was too big for the moment.
Less than a year after she graduated from Oxford High School, the Jacksonville State freshman slugged a no-doubter over the left-field fence in the bottom of the seventh inning, putting an emphatic end to the Gamecocks' 4-2 win over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on Saturday.
"I was just going up there ready to be calm, and if she threw one I could hit, I was going to hit it. Try not to swing too big," said Howard, who was pinch-hitting for Lauren Hunt.
Howard's game-winning home run couldn't have come at a better time for a struggling JSU softball team. Even with the win, the Gamecocks are 6-16, including 5-7 in the Ohio Valley Conference, but still, head coach Jana McGinnis savored the victory: "This was sweet."
The previous day, JSU lost both ends of a doubleheader to SIUE, and McGinnis and her staff held a stern meeting with the players in the right field. On Saturday, the coach saw improved results, and she praised her team for a better effort and more fight. More importantly, they had a win to show for it.
"I felt like they fought for each other and fought for this program," she said. "Today, it felt like we were clicking."
Lex Jimmerson belted a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth for a 2-1 lead, but SIUE got a solo homer by Amber Storer to lead off the seventh.
In the seventh against SIUE ace Sydney Baalman, pinch-hitter Shelby Newsome drew a leadoff walk. She was replaced by pinch-runner Ellie Largen, who moved to second on Savannah Sudduth's groundout. Then with two outs, Howard swung at Baalman's 1-0 pitch and sent it out of the park, bringing her crazy happy teammates streaming out of the dugout to celebrate.
Jimmerson, a fifth-year senior who is JSU's most experienced player, was among the first to greet Howard at home plate.
"I almost wanted to cry tears of joy because she works so hard," Jimmerson said. "She is literally one of the hardest workers on the team. I know how bad she wants it, and I know how bad she wants to be in that position. For her to finally get that result of stepping up for the team and doing what we needed her to do was a great feeling, and I know it was a great feeling for her."
The Gamecocks entered Saturday at 10th in the OVC in scoring at 3.1 runs a game, and against SIUE, they had only five hits and three walks, but that doesn't count the hard outs they made.
Jimmerson lined out hard to the outfield twice before her homer. Jada Terry and Megan Fortner lined out to outfielders. Karsen Mosley lined out to third. Terry lifted a shot that did manage to get just over the right fielder for a triple.
"We had probably the best swings and the best contact that we've had in eight games," McGinnis said.
So, the Gamecocks did what McGinnis had asked — fight at the plate and have better at-bats. What would it have done if the seventh inning had gone differently and JSU had lost?
"It would've been tough," McGinnis said. "It would've been a test for them, like they've been tested a lot this year. If they had put forth that much effort and still lost, I'd still expect them to dust themselves off, get back up and get ready for the next game.
"But, it would've been hard to swallow. A kick to the gut."
Still, JSU didn't lose.
"It was a great feeling," Jimmerson said. "We just wanted the team to come out today with a different mindset because this year clearly anybody can be beat and anybody can win. So, we just wanted a clean slate and to play for each other and to pull for each other. That's what we did today, and we got the result we wanted."
As for Jimmerson's home run, McGinnis had reminded her just before her at-bat that Baalman likely would come inside to her.
"I had been hitting the ball hard all day long, so I was just trying to stay calm in the box and keep my swing consistent," Jimmerson said. "They had been coming inside on me all day long, so I had cleared my hips and put a good swing on it."
What to know
—Jimmerson finished Saturday 1-for-3 but was 4-for-10 for the three-game series with SIUE, with a double and the home run.
—Terry was 2-for-3 with her triple. Mosley was 1-for-2 and was hit by a pitch.
—Lost in the excitement of the comeback win was the job Nicole Rodriguez did in the circle. She pitched a complete game and allowed seven innings, striking out six. The sixth strikeout came on SIUE's last batter in the seventh inning. JSU runs a promotion that says if Gamecocks pitchers can strike out six batters, everybody in the park will get a coupon for a free donut. Rodriguez won free donuts for the announced crowd of 321.
—Howard on the feeling of rounding third and seeing her teammates so happy: "It was absolutely amazing because I knew every single one of them had my back, and I have theirs as well."
—McGinnis on how Howard has done well as a pinch-hitter: "I know it's tough for a freshman because you're starting one game and then you're not starting. But her team needs her in this position, and she puts in the work. She is working every day for that moment. She's had good at-bats. She had nothing to show for it yesterday, but we knew we were putting her in that position today. It's because she's earned that opportunity. She's put in the work and stays positive."
—JSU will host a doubleheader against Tennessee Tech on Tuesday at 3 p.m.
Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.