For the first time in program history, the Florida Tech Panthers are Sunshine State Conference champions. The Panthers were victorious over Eckerd on Friday at Nancy Bottge Field, coming away with a 5-0 win on Senior Day.

“Before the season started they all said we have the team to win a conference championship,” said Panthers coach Val Silvestrini after the game. “I think the players saw it coming before I did, and they believed in themselves. That was huge.”

“This conference is one of the best in the country,” Silvestrini said. “Every weekend you have to show up and play your best because nothing guarantees a win. Anybody can beat anyone on any given day and it means a lot. Our team did an amazing job in April, we only lost one game and I think that was huge.”

Following a pair of 1-0 wins on Thursday, the Panthers needed Saint Leo to take one of two games from Tampa on Thursday night, in order to have a chance at the title on Friday. Amanda James gave the Panthers that opportunity when she hit a three-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the eighth, to give Lions a 4-1 win.

When asked if James would get a Christmas card this year, Silvestrini replied quickly, “yes… of course.”

Even with the Saint Leo win, the Panthers had to go out and take care of business Friday morning, and they did. Starting pitcher Melanie Murphy who won both games on Thursday, throwing a combined 84 pitches, including two on game two was back out there Friday, and went to work, allowing only one baserunner through the first three innings.

“Coach Val ingrained in us that we can’t focus on the uncontrollables, meaning the Tampa game the Tampa game,” said Murphy. “We couldn’t really focus on that, we had to focus on what we could control, and that was winning all the games in this series. It just so happened to fall into our hands, and we’re blessed and so thankful that God gave us this opportunity to play three games and win.”

Murphy (22-5) was lights out in the conference clincher on Friday, allowing just two hits, while striking out six and walking one. She threw a total of 103 pitches, 70 for strikes.

She’s a competitor,” said Silvestrini of Murphy. “We know every time she steps on the mound she’s going to give us her best, and she did amazing. I’ll be surprised if she doesn’t get the pitcher of the week.”

Florida Tech (39-10, 23-7 SSC) stranded 14 runners in game one on Thursday, and were on that trajectory again, stranding seven runners in the first three innings, including leaving the bases loaded in the second and the third. They would end up stranding 11 more in this one, against Eckerd starter, Nikole Van Gennep.

“Yesterday and today we hit the ball well, and had runners on base, we just couldn’t get two hits together,” Silvestrini said. “I knew we needed to keep battling and eventually those runs were gonna score.”

Van Gennep was the starter in all three games in this series. Congratulations to her on setting the program record for games started at Eckerd, as Friday marked her 143rd start.

Eckerd (18-30, 10-20 SSC) had their best chance in the top of the fourth. Ally Costa led off with a double, and Skylar Reddish lined one off of Murphy’s glove that went as an infield hit, putting runners at first and third. That brought Kaylin Kramer to the plate, and she lined one to Cheyenne Nelson in center. Costa attempted to score, but Nelson’s throw to the plate was a good one, and catcher Jaden Kline slapped the tag on to keep the game scoreless.

Florida Tech would leave runners at second and third in the bottom of the fourth, before finally breaking through in the fifth inning. Vanessa Rubio doubled to start the inning and was run for by Katrina Hand. Shanysse Emerenciana then came through with a single that found its way through the right side, and into right field, allowing Hand to score the first run of the game.

Things unraveled for Eckerd in the sixth inning. An error to start the inning allowed Lexi Bettermann to reach. Pinch-hitter Mikayla Wessel beat out a bunt to put runners at first and second, and

Xiarysse Emerenciana sacrificed the runners to second and third. A sac fly by Kline made it 2-0, and a wild pitch allowed Wessel to score the third run. Shanysse then had an RBI double to make it 4-0, and cap her 4-for-4 day at the plate. Senior Alexus Smith, who has been dealing with an injury in the latter part of the season, made her senior day count, capping the scoring with an RBI single.

With the insurance runs now on the scoreboard, Murphy went out and did what she does. She struck out Kramer and Kassy Torres, before hitting Meredith McGinnis. She bounced right back, getting Avery Wakefield looking, to end the game and give the Panthers the Sunshine State Conference title.

“Our coach told us it was the first time in program history to win a conference championship, and being my senior year it was just really emotional for me,” said Murphy after the game. “When the last out came, we all just went crazy, and that was the best feeling ever, and I can’t wait to see what we do in the postseason.”

For more info: Eckerd @ Florida Tech Box Score

The Panthers will now be off until the NCAA Regionals start on May 9th. The selection show will be on Monday, May 6 at 10:00 a.m. There, the Panthers will find out when and where they will be.

“I think it’s an advantage for us, having the two weeks off,” said Silvestrini. “All the other teams are going to play a tournament next week and they’re going to play a lot of games. “We’re gonna take this week light, we have finals so practices will be short and sweet, and after that, we’re professional athletes, we don’t have to go to school anymore.”

Murphy echoed Silvestrini’s sentiments when asked about the layoff between now and the regionals.

“I think it’ll be good for us because right now we’re all tired from exams,” she said. “It will give us a chance to rest, recover and come back and focus on what we’re here to do, play softball and win a national title. I’m ready.”

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