By: Joshua Gerard Gargiulo
PHOENIX - Another year passes with Softball falling “just short” of the coveted NJCAA National Championship trophy.
This second-place finish marks seven years since Phoenix College Softball Head Coach Heinz Mueller has hoisted the NJCAA National Championship trophy.
Despite outright dominance in the ACCAC Conference tournament, Phoenix College started off rather lackluster coming into Wednesday’s match-up with #14 Cuyahoga. The Bears had trouble finding their way on base despite a quality-start from Brianna Hardy. As they barely snuck by with back-to-back-to-back runs in the bottom of the fifth, sixth and seventh.
A nine strike-out performance for “Ace” Brianna Hardy also proved a pivotal point in their success during the late stages of Game One. Hardy, who started every game for PC, averaged 8.6 strike-outs/game during the tournament; finishing with a 4-2 record and a 2.66 ERA.
Coming-off a surprising 8-1 upset against #6 St. Louis, the Tartan Pride of #11 Sinclair Community College were riding a wave into their second game matched up against PC. Despite their energetic chants, Sinclair proved no-match for the high-powered Bears offense. Who easily ended their title hopes, in six innings, with a 9-0 shut-out.
An eleven-hit game by PC also saw RBI contributions from Hana Krosky with four; Sydnee Smith and Mackenzie Whitten with two; and Ela Henry and Kara Golden each with one.
Game Three pitted the Bears against the first team with a higher-seed: #2 Des Moines Area Community College. Following a Maddie Karr solo-home run in the bottom of the second, Phoenix College dug deep and found their “second-wind” with an unearned run in the third and solo-shot in the fourth to take a 2-1 lead. From then on it was in the hands of the “Ace,” Hardy, who delivered in stunning fashion. Pitching the next five: shutout.
The buck stopped in almost the same place it always does; when facing the team who has ousted them two of the last four seasons: LSU-Eunice. The #1 overall seeded Bengals quickly took a two-run lead in the bottom of the first; followed by impeccable-defense that surrendered a lone-sac fly in the Top Fourth by Ela Henry. Handing the Bears their first-tournament loss: 2-1.
One would not describe the mood as “rattled” more than a realization of the “missed opportunity.” Knowing they needed to handle business, with the loser of the next-game settling for third-place, PC dialed in and took a 4-0 lead by the fifth inning against Des Moines Area. A seven strike-out performance from Hardy with six, eventual, runs from her teammates guaranteed PC would get another crack at their foes.
A knockdown, drag-out fight encompassed the 2019 National Title Game. Thirteen runs in the first two innings, product of two LSU-Eunice home runs and three steals of home by PC. Yet the bears still saw themselves down by three going into the third. As the heavy-hitters of Phoenix College stepped into the box, the Bengals had their secret-weapon hiding away: Jenson Howell.
As the scoring quickly died-down following a one-two-three inning by “Breezy” Hardy, LSU-Eunice brought on Howell to take the mound. In the next five innings, the Bengals “Ace” delivered a seven strike-out performance to blank the Lady Bears. Two-more “cushion runs” came in: one in the fifth; one in the sixth. Putting a swift end to Phoenix College 2019 title-run.
The statistical season for Phoenix College proved to be fruitful, but not anywhere close to record-breaking numbers of past seasons.
Sydnee Smith and Hana Krosky led the team in doubles with (20) and (16)- respectively. While Smith was 3rd-ACCAC in batting average with (.466), and 4th-ACCAC in Stolen Bases with (29). Krosky managed to come 3rd-ACCAC in Home Runs with 16, and 5th-ACCAC in RBI with (68). Her sophomore counter-part, Haley Johnston, came 4th-ACCAC in Home Runs with (15).
Freshman Pitcher/Infielder Brianna Hardy put together a season for the ages. Finishing the 2019 campaign with a near-unblemished 32-2 overall pitching record, complemented by a 12.55 K/7 (371 total SO) and 1.25 ERA. These numbers very easily swept all ACCAC categories. Hardy’s mound domination also put her among rare Phoenix College Company: T-2nd in Wins: 32; and 1st in Strikeouts: 371 (+124 then 2nd-place). Hardy also came third on the team in HRs with thirteen, while posting a .347 batting average.
With Krosky’s departure, the “Most Outstanding Defensive Player” and “All-Tournament Team Catcher,” Sydnee Smith, provides a veteran presence for the upcoming sophomore season alongside Hardy; and fellow infielders Kamryn Moctezuma, Jocellyn LeFlesch and Avery Dome. All of whom averaged above a .350 batting average in over 50 games played.
Only five of the Bears’ eighteen players will be departing (barring Brianna Hardy leaving early). With six of the top-ten hitters also being freshman, the Bears’ stable looks strong when complemented by a strong recruiting class. Which is highlighted by Madison Fusich and Julianne Malis, both sisters of former Lady Bear players.
Over the past twenty seasons, Phoenix College has undoubtedly asserted its dominance. However, it is only fair when teams of equal talent find the recipe for success against the Bears. As of recent years, that team is named LSU-Eunice; a team who have knocked out PC in two of the last four NJCAA National Tournaments.
The Lady Bears’ fate vs. LSU-Eunice will not last forever. Even Michael Jordan found a way to conquer the East, just as Phoenix College will find a way to conquer the South- once again.
It comes with no doubt that Head Coach, Heinz Mueller will come back stronger than before with a stacked 2019-2020 squad highlighted by Four All-ACCAC players. But the goal has never been merely an ACCAC Region I title. Year in and year out, the goal remains the same: an eighth National title.