HARROGATE, Tenn. -- The 2014 Food Lion South Atlantic Conference Softball Championship is set to be hosted at Lincoln Memorial University for the first time in school history and, as the cards were dealt, the Lady Railsplitters are scheduled to kick off the slate of opening-round contests bright and early Thursday morning. Fifth-seeded Lincoln Memorial is paired up against the fourth-seeded Tusculum Pioneers for a 10 a.m. clash at Dorothy Neely Field in Harrogate, Tennessee.
Despite losing the final SAC series to rain, the Lady Railsplitters (26-15, 12-8 SAC) set the program record for South Atlantic Conference wins this season with 12, earning the No.5 seed for the Food Lion SAC Championship which is the highest SAC finish for the program since the 2008 campaign. By virtue of its fifth-place finish, Lincoln Memorial drew No.4 Tusculum, who won 10 of its last 12 games to build some late momentum heading into the tournament.
The Lady Railsplitters and Tusculum Pioneers split a doubleheader on March 18 at Dorothy Neely Field with LMU taking the opener 5-0 before the Pioneers bounced back to salvage the split with a 5-2 win in the nightcap. Sophomore pitcher Samantha Smith (Knoxville, Tenn.) spun a two-hit, complete-game shutout and the Lady Railsplitters took advantage of four Tusculum miscues in LMU's 5-0 win. But, Lincoln Memorial returned the favor by committing two first-inning errors that led to two unearned runs in the Pioneers' 5-2 triumph.
The LMU-Tusculum duel is a repeat from the opening round of last year's SAC Championship as the then No.1 seed Tusculum topped the eight-seeded Lady Railsplitters, 2-1, in Salisbury, North Carolina. Tusculum ace Kelly King led the Pioneers to victory by chucking a complete-game five-hitter. King's performance overcame a five-hitter by Sam Smith, who allowed two runs with four strikeouts and two walks to suffer the hard-luck loss.
The Lady Railsplitters are likely to get another shot at taming King, who has been absolutely vital to the Pioneers' success this season. King was selected All-South Atlantic Conference Honorable Mention after finishing third in the SAC in wins with 18 while leading the league in innings pitched with 199 2/3 innings under her belt. Over that span, King has racked up 114 strikeouts with a 1.54 ERA, the seventh-lowest mark in the league. King has went the distance in all 28 games she's started this season.
King's margin for error on the mound has been razor thin as the Tusculum offense ranks last in the South Atlantic Conference in batting average with a .239 clip and last in on-base percentage with a grim .311 mark. The Pioneers also lead the league in strikeouts with 310, fanning in nearly a 1/4 of the team's total at-bats this season. Tusculum is 10th in the SAC in hits and runs scored.
Tusculum's offense has been dictated by sophomore outfielder Carolyn Williamson, who earned All-SAC Second Team distinctions after batting .304 with 49 hits, four doubles and four triples. Williamson is the only Pioneer hitting above .300, as junior first baseman Kaytlin Stroinski is the next biggest threat with a .285 average. Stroinski has collected 41 hits with 13 doubles, six homers and 32 RBI.
The Lady Railsplitters will be led into the SAC Championship by senior outfielder Brianna Mulkey (Kettering, Ohio), who was named to the All-SAC First Team on Wednesday. Mulkey led the Lady Railsplitters and finished fifth in the league with a .407 batting average. The Kettering, Ohio native has compiled 50 hits and scored 35 runs, reaching base in 38 of the team's 41 regular-season games. Junior Amanda Snow (Knoxville, Tenn.), an All-SAC Second Team honoree, enters the tournament batting .321 with 36 hits, six home runs and 29 runs batted in, while freshman Payton Bruce (Maiden, N.C) looks to extend her impressive debut season. Bruce is hitting .311 with 37 hits, four doubles and 16 RBI.
On the mound , the Lady Railsplitters will continue to rely heavily on Samantha Smith, who tossed 167 2/3 innings with 77 strikeouts and a 15-8 record. Smith has a .263 ERA as well as a .256 batting average against.
The winner of Thursday's duel between the Lady Railsplitters and Tusculum Pioneers advances to the winner's bracket to take on the winner of No.1 Lenoir-Rhyne and No.8 Catawba at 12:30 on Friday at Dorothy Neely. The loser, meanwhile, plays the loser of the No.1/No.8 match-up at 10 a.m. on Friday at Middlesboro High School in Middlesboro, Kentucky.
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