May 15—Eastern Kentucky won its first Ohio Valley Conference softball tournament in 17 years Saturday at Choccolocco Park.
The Colonels did it in an exciting final in which they beat top-seeded Southeast Missouri 5-4. The Redhawks loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the seventh until tournament MVP Samanta Reynoso coaxed SEMO's Kimmy Wallen to hit a soft grounder back to her. Reynoso fielded it cleanly and threw to first base to clinch a championship and set off a celebration.
EKU (35-15) has had its share of success in the OVC. Under respected head coach Jane Worthington since 1993, the Colonels won OVC regular-season crowns in 2002, '04 and '18. They finished runner-up in the OVC tourney in 1995, 2001, 2003, 2006 and 2018.
But after winning the league tournament in 2002 and '04, EKU has come up dry ... until Saturday. Now, the Colonels will head to the NCAA tournament. The winner of the OVC tourney receives an automatic bid.
"The tournament is the one that's important. You always want to win the regular season, of course, but the tournament is the big deal because I want these players to experience the postseason," said Worthington, who played on Utah State's 1981 national championship team. "The conference tournament is awesome, but it's a different level and a different experience when you go to the NCAAs. I've been there once or twice, as a player even. I want it for these girls."
In Saturday's final, EKU built a 3-1 early lead with the help of a two-run homer by Zoe Mihalicz in the second inning.
In the top of the fourth, SEMO (30-17) took the lead on consecutive solo home runs by Ashley Ellis, Alyson Tucker and Austine Pauley.
At that point, Reynoso replaced Mollie Paulick in the circle and pitched 3 2/3 innings of shutout softball. She allowed three hits and five walks while striking out four.
EKU took the lead for good after Mihalicz led off the bottom of the fifth with a single and Carly Robinson followed with a homer.
The all-tournament team included Jacksonville State's Shelby Newsome and Alexus Jimmerson.
The full team: Bailey Shorter, Austin Peay; Kelsey Gray, Austin Peay; Jimmerson, Jacksonville State; Shelby Newsome, Jacksonville State; Kaylee Anderson, Southeast Missouri; Rachel Anderson, Southeast Missouri; Ashley Ellis, Southeast Missouri; Vianna Barron, Eastern Kentucky; Carly Robinson, Eastern Kentucky; Zoe Mihalicz, Eastern Kentucky; Mollie Paulick, Eastern Kentucky; Samantha Reynoso, Eastern Kentucky (MVP).
Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.