ANN ARBOR – When Hayley Norton entered the batter’s box in the top of the sixth inning Friday, the Red Flash were already trailing 15th-seeded Michigan 5-0.
With runners on first and second with two outs, the all-time home-run hitter in the history of the St. Francis softball put a charge into a ball into right field. Michigan’s Haley Hoogenraad twisted and turned on her way to the ball, stabbing her glove out at the last second to make the third out on the warning track.
That’s the kind of day it was for the Red Flash, who were blanked in six innings, 8-0.
“That one was kind of a bummer,” Norton recalled. “I didn’t get all of it, but it still felt pretty good off the bat. We had runners in scoring position so that one hurt a little more. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”
St. Francis faced Michigan’s Meghan Beaubien through the first five innings, who was named to the watch list for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. The Red Flash forced her to throw 16 pitches in the first inning, the most she threw through five frames.
Cheyenne McKee had one of three hits by a St. Francis batter in the top of the first inning, but the Red Flash couldn’t scratch a run across. Norton’s at-bat in the sixth inning – the last one of the game for St. Francis – proved to be the best opportunity. Beaubien finished with six strikeouts on 57 pitches
“Honestly, I didn’t think (the pitching) was too difficult,” Norton said. “I made a quick adjustment; I realized (Beaubien) had more speed than we were used to so I moved back in the box. My first at-bat didn’t go the way wanted but I adjusted and just sat speed and tried to lay off the changeup.”
Mikayla Bower ran into difficulty in the second inning in the pitching circle, but pitched out of a jam with runners on first and second with two outs. Bower wasn’t so fortunate in the third inning, allowing four runs off four hits.
A ball hit down the first-base line deflected off a glove for a double to score a pair of runs, and McKee booted a ball at second base, which would have been the third out. Bower also had a ball deflect off her glove for an infield single, which didn’t help the cause.
“There wasn’t an inning I didn’t feel confident going against those hitters,” Bower said, who was charged with the loss after allowing two earned runs. “I think when (errors) happen they all catch us off guard because we never expect that to happen. I think the girls did a really good job bouncing back after the errors and wiping them; but they hurt in the moment. It was tough.”
Michigan tacked on a run in the fifth and three runs in the sixth inning. The Wolverines ended the game on a sacrifice fly with one out to enact the eight-run mercy rule. Freshman Christina Clark allowed four runs off five hits in the 22/3 innings she pitched in relief of Bower.
“I thought we were close to breaking that game open in the sixth inning with Norton’s hit to right field,” said first-year coach Jess O’Donnell. “We just need to be sharper; we need to be more focused. I thought we hurt ourselves today. (Michigan) did a good job taking advantage of our mistakes today.”
With the loss, St. Francis faces an elimination game Saturday against DePaul, which is scheduled for 2:30. Like the Red Flash, the Blue Demons are one of four teams that have currently won three-straight conference tournaments.
One bright spot in tomorrow’s matchup is that O’Donnell is familiar with DePaul’s lineup after being the associate head coach at Villanova for the previous five seasons, a Big East Conference foe of the Blue Demons. That familiarity will benefit the Red Flash on a quick turnaround from a scouting standpoint, according to O’Donnell.
“They have a lot of returners I’m familiar with; I’m familiar with how to pitch them,” O’Donnell said. “Even one of their pitchers is a returner. I’m pretty confident with our offense that we can make things happen.”