Warrior Softball All Alone In First Place

From:  WSU Sports Information   Photo: Josh Jurgens

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Something had to give. In a battle for conference supremacy between two teams ranked in the NCAA Division II Top 25, Winona State University and Augustana University entered Tuesday’s doubleheader with flawless NSIC records and double-digit win streaks intact.

Under cloudy skies at Bowden Park, No. 21 Winona State University made it rain with five home runs in a road sweep of No. 12 Augustana University on Tuesday afternoon to claim first place in the conference standings as the two teams have officially reached the halfway point in their NSIC schedules.

Winona State (29-5, 14-0 NSIC) defeated Augustana University (32-7, 12-2 NSIC) in a high-scoring opener, 9-7, and the Warriors held on for a 6-5 triumph in the finale over the Vikings.

The Warriors have now won five straight meetings with the Vikings which includes the last time the two teams squared off in Sioux Falls that resulted in a walk-off Winona State grand slam to claim the 2018 NSIC tournament title. That power surge continued Tuesday with the Warriors out-slugging the Vikings, who entered the twinbill leading the NSIC in slugging percentage.

WSU entered conference play late last month with only eight homers on its resume and has since launched 18 long balls over the last two weeks. Alexis Kelsey, Alison Nowak (2), Ann Smolenski and Lani Van Zyl each connected on round-trippers Tuesday at Augustana.

And, while the offense may have captured the headline, the pivotal midweek game also showcased the top two pitching staffs in the league. Jordyn Kleman (15-1) earned the win in game one before Liz Pautz entered in relief to nail down the save. In game two, Kleman returned the favor for her teammate as she tossed a hitless seventh inning to preserve the victory for Pautz (10-2).

In the opener, Van Zyl broke the scoring seal in the top of the first with a blast to deep center field and Kelsey followed suit with a homer in the second inning. Van Zyl stretched the lead to 3-0 in the third frame with an RBI-single to score Katie Kolb before the back-and-forth affair began.

The Vikings weren’t short on power Tuesday either, launching four homers on their home field to keep things interesting throughout the duration of the doubleheader. The first Augie home run came in the bottom of the fourth inning in the opening tilt to cut the Warrior lead to 3-1. In the fifth frame, a two-run double by Smolenski padded the WSU back to 5-1 in front of a two-run Viking homer in the bottom of the inning.

Nowak looked to put the game out of reach in the top of the sixth with a clutch two-out grand slam, but the home team answered right back with four runs of their own in the bottom of the frame as the Warriors went to the final inning with a 9-7 advantage.

With the tying run already on base, Pautz entered in relief and was brilliant in the circle with a flawless inning that included a pair of punchouts for her first save of the year.

The Warrior offense tagged Ashley Mickschl, who entered the game ranked second in the NSIC in ERA, with nine earned runs in the win. Kleman struck out seven batters in her start while notching her NSIC-leading 15th win.

In the nightcap, the Winona State offense remained hot and chased Augie starter Amber Elliot from the mound after just three innings with six earned runs. Elliot had allowed just six earned runs over her previous 11 appearances.

Nowak greeted Elliot in the top of the first inning with a two-run homer, but the resilient home team answered with a solo home run of their own in the bottom of the first against Pautz. The round-tripper stood as just the second of the season against Winona’s right-handed before the Vikings tagger her for another in the third inning.

The Warriors’ lead had swelled to 4-1 before the second Augustana homer with a solo blast by Smolenski in the second frame before WSU added another run on a passed ball later in the inning.

An RBI-double by Van Zyl and a sac fly by Kelsey in the fourth frame padded the Warrior lead to 6-2 as Pautz sat down eight of the next nine batters she faced from the third through fifth innings. The Vikings refused to go down without a fight though, and plated a trio of unearned runs on a two-out double in the bottom of the sixth.

After a scoreless frame by the Warrior offense in the top of the seventh, Kleman entered to face the home team in their final at-bats. After a strikeout, Augustana put the tying run on base before the veteran ace induced a pair of weak infield pop outs to end the game for her fourth save of the year to complete the sweep.

Nowak finished the day with six RBI while Van Zyl went 4-for-5 at the plate with a pair of walks, three RBI and three runs scored.

The Warriors’ current six-game road trip continues this weekend with doubleheaders at Minnesota Crookston and Bemidji State before Winona State returns home for a pair of games on Tuesday, April 16 to open a six-game homestand.

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