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Rubio’s Blast Secures NCAA South Region 2 Title For Panthers

Cindy Rieber

The magical season continued for Florida Tech Saturday as they won the NCAA South Region 2 title, beating the Mississippi College Choctaws 5-2 at Nancy Bottge Field in Melbourne Florida.

“We had a lot of alumni, a lot of fans supporting us,” said Panthers coach Val Silvestrini. “That’s the reason you want to host because you want to win games in front of your fans and you want them supporting your team.”

This is the second time in three days that the Panthers beat Mississippi College, and the Choctaws had to play a brutal couple days in between with extra-inning games and injuries affecting the team.

“I think today just came down to the fact that A) Florida Tech is an unbelievable team, no doubt they deserve everything that they’ve earned this season,” said Mississippi college head coach Brooke O’Hair.” “But I think we just gave everything we had left in us and it just wasn’t our day today.”

Vanessa Rubio broke a 2-2 tie with a two-run home run in the sixth inning, that just cleared the right-center field wall and put the Panthers in the driver’s seat.

The win is the Panthers 12th in a row and earns them a berth in the NCAA South Super Regional, scheduled to start on Thursday.

Melanie Murphy (25-5) went the distance in this one, allowing two runs on five hits and striking out three. She pitched 20-plus innings in this regional over the course of three days and she showed no signs of fatigue, coming up with two of her three strikeouts in the top of the sixth, with the game knotted at two.

“Today I came out and I felt really good and I think everyone else did too”, Murphy said. “It’s just a different environment being the championship game. I didn’t even feel like I pitched two games the previous day. We all came out and were all ready to play.”

The Choctaws (40-16) got on the board early with an RBI single off the bat of Baylee Freudenberg in the top of the first. They would add another run in the top of the second when Morgan Bradford singled and later scored on a single by Shayla McKissock, giving the visitors a 2-0 lead.

“That’s postseason, we know teams are gonna score on us,” said Silvestrini. “We have seven innings and our lineup is very deep, anyone can score from one to nine. We know we’re gonna work together and find a way to score.”

Florida Tech again found a way despite the deficit. They just went to work against Choctaws starter Hannah Creel.

Rubio singled to lead off the bottom of the second and took second on a passed ball. After Shanysse Emerenciana got on with an infield single, Tina Velazquez, who had a home run on Thursday against this Mississippi College squad, hit into a double play. The silver lining was that Rubio moved to third and she came home on a hard hit double by Victoria Szrom. With that, it was now a 2-1 game.

The Panthers would even things up in the bottom of the fourth. Emerenciana singled with one out and Velazquez reached on an error, allowing Emerenciana to go to third. A wild pitch sent Emerenciana scampering home with the tying run.

“These last three games we started off behind and nobody was worried,” said Szrom. “We had confidence in each other and we knew we were going to go ahead, it was just a matter of when.”

Murphy sent the Choctaws down in order in the fifth and sixth inning, setting the Panthers up for the when that Szrom was talking about.

In the bottom of the sixth, Jaden Kline drew a one-out walk and was pinch run for by Katie Maiello, who was pressed into action immediately, taking second on a passed ball.

That brought Rubio to the plate, and she changed the game with one swing, taking Creel deep, and giving her team a 4-2 lead.

“I thought it was a pop fly,” Rubio said of the home run. “Not gonna lie, I thought it was a pop fly and Katie was gonna tag up and take third, but the wind, playing in right field, I knew it was blowing that way so once it kept going and the outfielders stopped running, I knew it was out of the park.”

Emerenciana reached on an error following the homer and a single by Velazquez got her to third. That would be the end of the day for Creel, who was relieved by Cori Cooper. Szrom grounded out to second, but with Emerenciana’s speed, she easily scored the Panthers final run.

Cooper got the final two outs of the sixth, capping a very busy, likely painful weekend for her. She threw over 200 pitches in 17 innings on Friday and the two outs today capped her career in Clinton.

“She’s incredible. She can’t throw the ball overhand because her arm hurts her too bad,” said O’Hair. “She’s got nerve damage, it hurts her to pitch and her fingers go numb and yet she’s pitched unbelievable for us this entire season.”

Murphy would send the Choctaws down in order in the seventh with the final out falling into the glove of Cheyenne Nelson in center and the celebration was on.

“The emotions were just so high, it was such a great feeling,” said Rubio. “We won the conference, but we’re the best team in the region it was awesome.”

“Nothing feels better than not only winning a conference championship on our field, but we also got to get out to our fans in the regional tournament,” said Murphy. “You can’t describe how you feel after that last out. It’s just a relief, your happy and you’re ready to work hard the next week.”

For more info: Mississippi College @ Florida Tech Box Score (South Region 2 Championship)

Florida Tech now heads to Pensacola to take on West Florida in the NCAA South Super Regional. The Argos won game one 1-0 in eight innings on Saturday and came up with two runs in the bottom of the seventh in game two, to beat the Spartans 2-1. As the higher seed, they will host the Panthers. Good luck to this amazing group as they now hit the road with hopes of bringing home a national title.