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Virginia softball keeps rolling, takes series against Notre Dame

The Cavaliers ended their road trip on a high note, taking two of three games from the Fighting Irish

<p>Junior utility player Kelly Ayer ripped a clutch three-run triple to break open the deciding game of the series for the Cavaliers.</p>

Junior utility player Kelly Ayer ripped a clutch three-run triple to break open the deciding game of the series for the Cavaliers.

Riding a five-game winning streak entering last weekend’s series against Notre Dame, Virginia won decisively Sunday afternoon to take two of three in Notre Dame, Ind. The Cavaliers (26-11, 9-6 ACC) had won just five of 27 previous matchups against the Fighting Irish (22-14, 7-8 ACC), turning the historical tables and heading back to Charlottesville with a series victory.

Game 1 — Virginia 9, Notre Dame 2

Virginia took command of Friday’s game early, jumping out to a three-run lead in the second inning — three straight singles culminated in a two-out, three-run triple off the bat of sophomore infielder Jade Hylton. Notre Dame responded in the bottom half of the inning, scoring an unearned run courtesy of a wild pitch to advance the runner to second followed by a double from junior infielder Anna Holloway. All told, senior pitcher Mikayla Houge gave the Cavaliers a solid start, throwing two innings and allowing one unearned run. 

The Fighting Irish simply could not keep up with the Virginia bats, however, as they tagged graduate pitcher Alexis Laudenslager for another two-out run to push the lead back to three runs. With the bases loaded and two outs, Laudenslager issued her second consecutive walk to senior outfielder Lauren VanAssche and allowed a run to score, prompting her to exit the game after 2.2 innings of work. Sophomore pitcher Micaela Kastor took the circle and was greeted with a single up the middle from senior catcher Leah Boggs, scoring two runs and stretching the Cavaliers’ lead to five runs. 

Sophomore pitcher Eden Bigham entered for Virginia in the bottom of the third and locked down the Fighting Irish, allowing just one more run via a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning. The Cavaliers refused to cool down on offense, as Boggs doubled in the top half of the fifth to bring up freshman infielder Bella Cabral, a perpetual power threat. Cabral came through with two outs, driving a home run to deep left field and putting Virginia up by seven runs.

Freshman pitcher Kami Kamzik took over the pitching duties for Notre Dame in the top half of the sixth, striking out the side but allowing another run to score in the seventh inning thanks to a double from Hylton. That run was the last of nine scored by the Cavaliers, and was the only run scored with less than two outs by either team. Bigham finished strong and earned the win, allowing one run in five innings with five strikeouts. 

Game 2 — Virginia 3, Notre Dame 10

Virginia appeared primed for a repeat performance Saturday — Hylton continued her torrid pace with a leadoff double in the first inning, and senior utility player Abby Weaver drove her in with a single. Junior utility player Sarah Coon drove in Weaver with a single shortly after, but junior pitcher Shannon Becker worked out of a two-out jam to retire the side. The Fighting Irish wasted no time in the bottom half of the inning, though, stringing together two singles and a two-run double from freshman infielder Addison Amaral to tie the game. Coach Joanna Hardin pulled sophomore pitcher Courtney Layne quickly — Layne did not record an out, yielding the circle to senior pitcher Madison Harris with a runner in scoring position. Harris induced three quick outs to end the inning with no further damage. 

The second inning passed without incident, but Notre Dame tagged Harris for two more runs in the bottom half of the third — senior infielder Karina Gaskins put the Irish up by two runs with a home run. The Cavaliers’ bats struggled to respond but appeared to generate some momentum in the fifth inning, as Boggs led off the inning with a single. An ensuing Hylton triple resulted in Boggs being thrown out at home, but Hylton scored after a sacrifice fly from Cabral. Nonetheless, Virginia would regret failing to fully capitalize on a major scoring opportunity in the fifth inning, as they would not score again in the game. 

Notre Dame appeared hungry to exact revenge after the beatdown on Friday, and their bats responded in kind. After scoring one run in the fifth inning, they came out and scored five runs in the sixth. Defensive miscues, walks and singles characterized the inning as the Irish batted all the way through the order and took a seven-run lead. Harris finished out the game for the Cavaliers, taking the loss but throwing nearly a complete game despite not starting for Virginia. The innings were valuable to save the bullpen for the series finale. Becker threw a complete game for Notre Dame, allowing three runs on seven hits and striking out two, notching her sixth win of the season.

Game 3 — Virginia 6, Notre Dame 3

The tiebreaker match started off scoreless Sunday afternoon, but the Cavaliers broke through in the top of the third inning. Hylton drove in VanAssche — who reached via an error — to start the scoring, continuing her invaluable contributions on offense for Virginia. The Irish answered in the bottom half of the third, with senior catcher Carlli Kloss notching an RBI single to tie the game. The Cavaliers turned to Bigham out of the bullpen, and despite issuing a walk to load the bases, Bigham recorded two outs to end the scoring threat and leave the score tied through three innings. 

A single for Cabral and a fielding error put runners on first and second to start the fourth inning, prompting a call to the bullpen for Notre Dame. Kastor, who started the game for the Irish, relinquished the circle to Laudenslager, a reversal of Friday’s pitching strategy. A single from Coon loaded the bases, and Weaver worked a walk to score Virginia’s second run. A strikeout and a fielder’s choice followed, and with two outs and the bases loaded, junior utility player Kelly Ayer stepped into the box. With a 1-1 count, Ayer drove a sinking line drive to center field that fell just past the diving outfielder, resulting in a three-run triple to break the game open for the Cavaliers. 

In the fifth inning, the Irish brought Becker in as their third pitcher of the day, but she was unable to break Virginia’s stride. Cabral promptly fired off a solo home run to stretch the lead to five runs. The bottom half of the inning saw Notre Dame threaten the lead after junior catcher Rachel Allen drove in two runs on a double, but Bigham stopped the bleeding and shut down the Irish for the rest of the game. The Cavaliers defeated Notre Dame on their home turf to take the series. Bigham picked up her 11th win of the season and continued a string of strong performances from the circle. 

Amidst a somewhat worrying trend of the offense betraying strong pitching performances, the Virginia offense showed out in South Bend, scoring 18 runs in three games. Hardin praised the Cavaliers’ all-around performance and noted their ability to bounce back after a tough loss.

“The response today was a complete 180 from everyone,” Hardin said. “Kelly Ayer’s hit was big and she’s been waiting for her chance. Mikayla Houge and Eden Bigham [tag-teamed] it in the circle for the win again. I’m proud of the team for grinding it out to find a way to win.”

Exiting the road trip, Virginia appears to have some serious momentum. The Cavaliers have won 11 of their last 13 games, with their last series loss coming back in early March against North Carolina. Virginia returns to Charlottesville Tuesday to face Liberty for the second time this season, with the game to start at 7 p.m. with coverage available on ACC Network. Virginia will then resume ACC play with a weekend series against NC State. 


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