With a win Friday over North Carolina and an early lead on No. 12 Tennessee, Ohio State softball looked poised for a regional round upset, but back-to-back Saturday losses saw its season halted in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season.
Ohio State head softball coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly said Tuesday that North Carolina’s left-handed junior pitcher Brittany Pickett would pose a problem for Buckeye hitters in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The ACC strikeout leader lived up to the billing, as she pitched all seven innings with no earned runs, allowing just three hits.
Unfortunately for Pickett and the Tar Heels, Ohio State senior pitcher Morgan Ray was even better.
The Buckeyes (35-16) took the slight edge in the pitcher’s duel against North Carolina (35-19) 1-0 Friday in the opening game of their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Ray, a second-team All-Big Ten selection this season, struckout eight batters and gave up only two Tar Heel hits in her eighth shutout of the year. The win improved Ray’s season record to 18-8.
A scoreless stalemate through five innings, it took a costly Tar Heel error for the Buckeyes to find an opportunity to get on the board at the top of the sixth.
Following a double from senior outfielder Brianna Betschel, the only extra-base hit of the day, senior shortstop Lilli Piper’s grounder was fielded poorly with an errant North Carolina throw above the first baseman’s head that set up Buckeye runners on second and third.
Later in the inning, Ohio State freshman infielder Ashley Prange batted in Betschel on a sacrifice bunt that would prove to be the game’s lone score.
Despite entering the tournament No. 10 in the nation with 2.21 stolen bases per game, North Carolina attempted to steal just one base against the Buckeyes, which was thrown out in the opening inning by sophomore catcher Claire Nicholson.
The win was Ohio State’s 11th in 13 games, and it moved on to face No. 12 Tennessee in the regional winner’s bracket Saturday at noon.
Ohio State had the chance to do something they had not in their previous three trips to the NCAA Tournament on Saturday: win back-to-back regional round games.
No. 12 Tennessee (41-14) extended that streak with a dismantling 12-4 defeat of the Buckeyes (35-17) in their 11th double-digit scoring performance of the season.
With two outs at the top of third, down 2-1, Tennessee junior outfielder Cailin Hannon blasted a three-run shot to right center.
Ohio State would never get that close again.
Holding an 8-4 advantage heading into the game’s final inning, the Volunteers left no room for doubt, scoring four more runs to give them a total of 20 in their two regional round games.
Ohio State senior pitcher Katya Duvall walked two Volunteers with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, and allowed a two-RBI single from Tennessee freshman utility player Kaili Phillips to give her 36 for the season.
After her lights out performance on Friday, Ray was given the loss for Ohio State after giving up six hits and six runs in five innings Saturday.
Things looked promising early for the Buckeyes when Piper knotted the game at 1-1 in the opening inning with a crack over the right center fence off freshman pitcher Ashley Rogers.
Prange, the heroine of Ohio State’s Friday victory, followed Piper with a first inning home run of her own to give the Buckeyes their first and only lead of the day.
The 12 Volunteer runs were the most given up by Ohio State this season.
The loss put the Buckeyes one game out from being eliminated in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season.
Having beaten North Carolina just a day prior, Ohio State was in a position Saturday to stave off elimination and extend its season to the final regional matchup.
However, the Tar Heels (37-19) had vengeance on their mind as they returned the favor to Ohio State (35-18) with a 5-3 win that bounced the Buckeyes from the postseason.
Ray picked up her second loss of the day for Ohio State to cap her season record at 18-10 after giving up all five of North Carolina’s runs in the top of the third inning.
A Buckeye error and a pair of two-RBI singles from the Tar Heels garnered the steep North Carolina lead, and saw Ray’s Ohio State career come to a close as Duvall came on in relief.
As she did all weekend, Prange once again stepped up for the Buckeyes, hitting a two-RBI home run in the bottom of the third to keep Ohio State within striking distance. Out of her four tournament hits, three were home runs, all of which taking place on Saturday.
Ohio State sophomore utility player Niki Carver drove in a run with an RBI single in the fifth inning, but the Buckeyes would not be able to complete the comeback.
Pickett matched her Game 1 strikeout total on the mound for North Carolina as she sent eight Buckeye batters back to the dugout. She went the distance for the Tar Heels and picked up her 22nd win of the season.
The Tar Heels advance to the final game of the Knoxville regional round against No. 12 Tennessee Sunday.
Its second loss of the day meant the end of Buckeye careers for Ohio State’s most prolific hitters, Piper and senior second baseman Emily Clark, the two first-team All-Big Ten performers.
Piper, an All-American the last two years, closed out the season with an 13-game hitting streak, while Clark batted .556 in the tournament.
Ohio State has won at least 34 games in each of its past four seasons, a feat only achieved once in the five years prior.