LO AND BEHOLD: Jax State sweeps UNA, and as usual, Lauren 'Lo' Hunt plays her part

Mar. 18—JACKSONVILLE — Somewhere early in the last game of a softball doubleheader Saturday, North Alabama apparently forgot to pay attention to Jacksonville State's Lauren "Lo" Hunt.

But that's OK, because Hunt was paying enough attention for both teams. Before anchoring herself in the batter's box, she glanced down the line for a quick moment and saw the UNA third baseman was playing awfully far back.

The left-hand hitting Hunt took advantage, laying down a bunt just inside the foul line. Lo and behold, the speedy senior was already putting her foot down on first base while the UNA defense was still trying to make a play.

Hunt finished the day 2-for-5 as Jacksonville State opened ASUN Conference play with a sweep of North Alabama 8-0 and 5-2. While JSU got plenty of contributions from the pitching staff, the defense, and up and down the batting order, McGinnis praised Hunt as a hitter, a Gold Glove center fielder and a team leader for helping galvanize the Gamecocks to two important wins.

"Lo is one of our most consistent players," McGinnis said. "We know what we've got with her. One thing I'm proud of with Lo this year is if she has a bad at-bat, she's a different hitter the next at-bat. She makes adjustments.

"That's maturity, and she's definitely matured. She's a leader on our team. We need her."

Hunt is one of four JSU players to appear in every game: Emma Jones, Lindsey Richardson, Sidney Wagnon and her. She's one of three to start every game: Jones, Richardson and her.

It wasn't always like this. For three years, she was a part-time starter who struggled to nail down a full-time job, but for 2023, she has found a different level. She's hitting .308 and already has career highs for hits (20) and RBIs (seven).

"I'm the same player I've always been growing up, but I really feel like, especially as a senior, I try to lead and be that good leader on and off the field," she said. "My teammates know I'm there on the field and off the field. If we're ever down or need someone to step up, I will for sure step up and put this team on my back."

She hits ninth in the order, so while pitchers usually get a breather when they face the last batter in the lineup, Hunt applies the pressure, whether it's bunting, slapping one through the infield or driving one into the gap.

"I have speed, so I have to use that to my advantage, for sure," Hunt said. "I'm not one to hit three home runs in a game. It's my job to get on base. I look at that as an opportunity to get on base for my team."

McGinnis said that earlier in Hunt's career, she "struggled to find the groove, but she's found it now."

Hunt also has developed into one of the most savvy players on the JSU roster. McGinnis said she and assistant coaches Julie Boland and Holli Mitchell have lots of confidence in her to manage her own game.

"Lo is a better player when I give her the freedom to feel the game," McGinnis said. "I don't give her many signs. She doesn't need me telling her what part of the game we need. And that's just maturity and trust. I trust her."

What to know

—In the first game, JSU got another complete-game effort from freshman pitcher Jaliyah Holmes (6-3), who allowed two hits and struck out seven in an 8-0 win. In her last four games, she has pitched 26 innings and allowed six hits.

—Richardson went 3-for-3 in the first game with a walk and two RBIs. Linley Tubbs, a freshman who hits clean-up, was 2-for-2 with three RBIs. She hit a home run off the top of the left-field foul pole.

—JSU scored three times in the bottom of the sixth inning for an 8-0 lead, which ended the contest because of the eight-run mercy rule.

—In the second game, Kat Carter (5-3) worked all seven innings. Although UNA got one run off her in the first inning, she shut down the Lions the rest of the way. She allowed two hits and five walks.

—Sidney Wagnon was 1-for-3 and doubled home a run. Abbi Perkins was 2-for-3 and doubled home a run.

—Ashley Phillips, a freshman second baseman from Alexandria, was 0-for-5 for the day before drilling a two-run double down the left field line, pushing JSU's fourth-inning lead from 3-1 to 5-1.

—After UNA went up 1-0 in the top of the first inning, Emma Jones got it back in the bottom half. She reached base on an error when UNA's shortstop hurried to pick up a grounder and misplayed it. Jones then stole second and third before coming home when Richardson grounded out to second base. Jones now has 15 stolen bases for the year.

—JSU and UNA played four times last season with the Lions winning three.

Who said

—Hunt on how her team approached the day: "We have worked really, really hard this week, all five days. We worked on our swings. We worked on doing things right. We've practiced and really worked hard, so we were prepared for this weekend, for sure."

—McGinnis on the work by Carter, who has struggled some lately: "I thought when she needed to bear down and get the big outs, she did a very good job. That was the best that Kat has looked — even though she has had so many walks."

—McGinnis on Phillips' big double: "Ashley Phillips had struggled, but I told her, 'Ashley, you're going to be there when we need you the most.' Her last at-bat, when she drove it down the line and got the two RBIs, it was good to see."

—Hunt on the confidence the JSU coaches have shown in her: "I think one of the most important things as a player is to know that your coach has that much confidence in you — not just Coach McGinnis but Coach Julie and Coach Holli. Them having my back is very important, and it helps my confidence as well. I work hard for them, and they work hard with me. Coach Julie works on my hitting every single day. I'm very thankful to them."

Next up

—JSU (14-9, 2-0 ASUN) and UNA (17-5, 0-2) will play the final game of their three-game series Sunday at 1 p.m. at University Field. Admission is free to JSU softball home games.

Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.