Wichita State softball rallies for win at Tulsa to clinch outright AAC championship

Wichita State senior Lauren Mills delivered in the clutch to help lift the Shocker softball team to the win they needed to clinch the outright American Athletic Conference championship.

After being no-hit through five innings in Sunday’s series finale at Tulsa, Mills drilled what became the game-winning RBI single in the top of the sixth inning of WSU’s 2-1 win at Collins Family Softball Complex.

The No. 19-ranked Shockers improved to 43-8 overall and finished their conference slate with a 16-2 record, edging preseason favorite UCF (34-19, 13-3) after taking two of three from the Knights in Orlando at the end of March. WSU will receive a first-round bye and be the No. 1 seed in the AAC tournament in Tampa, Fla. from May 11-13.

“That’s the fight and the grit that you love to see,” WSU head coach Kristi Bredbenner said. “When you’re not playing your best and you’re still able to come back and get a win, it’s huge. Especially a win like this because you can really start pressing because there’s so much on the line. This group just competes and never gives up. That’s been the spirit of this team and something I’m excited for these next couple of weeks to keep playing with this group.”

It appeared as if the Shockers might have to root for an upset during the final weekend of the regular season when Tulsa ace Maura Moore silenced WSU’s explosive lineup for the majority of Sunday’s game.

Sydney McKinney, who reached on an error and walked, was the only base runner for the Shockers through the fifth inning. Meanwhile, Tulsa peppered starter Alex Aguilar, then reliever Allie Cooper for eight hits in the first four innings.

But Tulsa stranded 12 runners in the first five innings, including bases-loaded situations in the second and fifth innings. Failing to capitalize when the Shockers were vulnerable proved to cost Tulsa in the end.

“I didn’t think we were panicking, but we weren’t making great adjustments at the plate,” Bredbenner said. “Their pitcher was throwing really great and the wind was blowing in, so we talked about flattening it out. Don’t try to hit it to left field, try to hit it hard to center field.”

Krystin Nelson drilled WSU’s first hit of the game to lead off the top of the sixth inning, but was a little too ambitious trying to leg out a double and was thrown out at second base. That didn’t stop WSU’s momentum, however.

McKinney and Addison Barnard both followed with bunt singles toward third base, then Lauren Lucas singled to center field to plate McKinney. Two batters later, Mills followed with the go-ahead RBI single.

“I definitely have struggled, but I know my teammates have got my back always,” Mills said. “If I didn’t have my teammates, I don’t know what I would do. I know if I struggle or if I fail, I’ll be backed up by the person behind me and I’ll get so much love in the dugout. I love them so much.”

WSU exhausted all three of their top arms in the game, as Aguilar pitched the first inning, Cooper threw the next three and Lauren Howell finished the final three innings.

After stranding the bases loaded in the fifth inning, Tulsa did not have another base runner in the final two innings of the game. Howell methodically sat the Golden Hurricane (20-27, 6-10 AAC) down in order for the final six outs of the game.

“It kind of felt like the third game (a loss) against Houston with the wind blowing in like that,” McKinney said. “We’re big hitters, so that was tough for us to adjust and start putting the ball on the ground. That’s what we had to do and I knew going into the box the last time that I just needed to put the ball on the ground and the people after me were going to pick me up.”

WSU will conclude its regular season on the road with a single game against Kansas in Lawrence on Wednesday night, then have a nine-day lay-off before playing the winner of the No. 4-No. 5 game in the conference tournament next Friday.