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The St. Francis University women’s softball team won its third consecutive Northeast Conference Championship Tournament and first under coach Jessica O’Donnell by defeating top-seeded host Long Island-Brooklyn 8-6 on Saturday afternoon. 

Long Island-Brooklyn had defeated the third-seeded Red Flash 6-1 earlier on Saturday to force a second game in the NCAA Division I NEC event.

In the title contest, St. Francis built an 8-0 advantage through four innings before Long Island-Brooklyn battled back to within two runs.

The resilient Red Flash maintained the lead and will take a 29-29 record into the regional tournament. The selection show for the regional pairings will be held Sunday night at approximately 9 p.m.

“The key to our success started in the circle,” O’Donnell said of St. Francis’ pitching throughout the NEC Championship. 

“Christina Clark, our freshman pitcher, was outstanding and threw off the teams. Mikayla Bower came in and started the second game. We put in our senior pitcher and she pitched in the championship game and held them pretty strong for five innings.

“She really did a good job. 

“Our leadership was big. 

“If one person didn’t succeed another player stepped up.”

Bower threw 42/3 innings, allowing seven hits and four runs to improve to 9-11. Clark picked up her third save by throwing 21/3 innings.

“Kassidy Troxell came up big this week,” O’Donnell said of the slugging third baseman. “She was huge with the grand slam in the Friday game (a 5-3 win over Long Island-Brooklyn). She was huge against Sacred Heart (a 7-0 win in Thursday’s first-round game).”

The Red Flash also played defense. Center fielder Jordan Frank made a running, diving catch in left-center to halt a potential Blackbirds rally with runners on the corners and two outs in the bottom of the sixth. 

The grab kept the score at 8-4 and was a hit on social media, even drawing national attention.

“Jordy Frank made a diving catch in center field. A huge momentum shift at that point,” O’Donnell said. “They probably would have scored a couple runs if she doesn’t make that catch.”

The Red Flash had seven hits, with Mekenzie Saban going 2-for-5 with two runs and a double. Hayley Norton had a double, scored once and drove in three runs. Sierra McKee went 1-for-2 with two runs and two RBIs.

“Timely hitting was key,” O’Donnell said. “We scored five runs in the fourth inning. It was just truly a team win on all counts.”

The program’s third straight conference crown didn’t follow a conventional path. 

Former coach Jennifer Patrick-Swift accepted the head coaching position at North Carolina State University in June, soon after the Red Flash had won a second consecutive NEC title.

“It’s unbelievable to win three in a row,” O’Donnell said. “Over this last year, in the summer, the (former) coaches took a job at (North Carolona State). A lot of players transferred before I got here. We had no pitching before I took over the team. Our starting catcher transferred before I got here.

“I had to put the puzzle pieces together. We faced a lot of adversity early on. The team just really believed in us and the process. It came together at the right time. It comes from our senior leadership. They’ve been here and done that. We just prepare them.”

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.