By Jerry Felts
DECATUR, Ala. (April 29, 2017) – Brenau University freshman pitcher Kathleen Daniel was questionable to take the mound before the Southern States Athletic Conference softball tournament championship game Saturday afternoon in Decatur, Alabama.
Daniel, the league's freshman, pitcher and player of the year, was "awfully sore," according to veteran Golden Tigers head coach Devon Thomas as his No. 2 nationally ranked squad prepared to battle Mobile University for the SSAC crown.
Daniel, the tournament MVP, worked through her soreness in warmups and delivered her latest masterpiece in a record-breaking season, striking out 15 while scattering four hits as top seed Brenau (51-5) beat Mobile 2-1 in nine innings to capture its first SSAC tournament title. Daniel posted complete-game victories in all four of the Golden Tigers' tournament games.
Junior Courtney Kenney delivered the game-winner, ripping a two-out pitch to right field that brought in Autumn Conaway from second base and set off a raucous celebration at Wilson Morgan Softball Complex as the Golden Tigers won their 30th consecutive game against SSAC opponents and their 51st of the 2017 season. No other SSAC team has ever won all of its conference games in regular-season and postseason play.
"I knew my job was to score the runner," said Kenney, who drove in both Brenau runs. "Our pitcher and all of our players in the dugout had been working so hard all week.I could not leave it up to the umpire to strike me out and I did not want to take a walk."
The Golden Tigers chased Mobile (38-17) starter Mackensie Williams early by scoring a run in the bottom of the first inning. Mackenzie Oliver Mullis, Brenau's lone senior, led off with a single and advanced to third on a Rams error. Kenney then brought her home with a fielder's choice for a 1-0 lead.
Mobile's Holli Rowland tied it with a solo homer off Daniel to left in the second inning.
From that point on, however, Daniel was nearly untouchable, surrendering only two hits over the final 7 2/3 innings while allowing only three Rams to advance to second base.
Daniel's 15-strikeout performance gives her 539 this season and puts her within one of tying the NAIA's all-time single-season record of 540 set by Oklahoma City University's Lily LaVelle in 2012. Daniel is the national leader in strikeouts, ERA (0.52), wins (42), opponents' batting average (.128) and innings pitched (309 1/3).
"My arm was a little sore from yesterday and I was a little tight," Daniel said. "It took me a minute to actually get through it and get the adrenaline going through me."
"She started throwing and told me, 'I'm good to go,' and I trust my players' judgment," said Thomas. "If they feel good, I'll let 'em go."
Daniel was joined on the SSAC All-Tournament team by junior third baseman Mason Garland and junior catcher Savannah Moore.
Kenney, Mullis, Conaway, Moore, Kelsey Payne and Lexi Cash each had one hit in Saturday's win.
Brenau will continues its quest for the national title in the NAIA Softball Championship opening round May 15-17 at a site to be announced later. Mobile also locked up a trip to regionals by advancing to the SSAC title game.
"This is the best-jelled team that I've had as far as everybody hitting the ball and never quitting," said Thomas. "There's some pressure on you when you have 30 straight wins.
"This is the first 50-win team I've had. Coming in here we had the No. 1 defense in the country, the No. 1 or 2 pitching staff in the country, a top 20 hitting team in the country. Any time you can do that, and put a pitcher like Eli out there, she's going to give you a chance."
The Golden Tigers punched their ticket to the final with a 2-1 win over second-seeded William Carey (Miss.) Friday night.
After trailing 1-0 through the first five innings, Brenau got a clutch two-out, two-run single from Moore in the bottom of the sixth to propel the Golden Tigers into the title showdown against Mobile.
Daniel hurled a complete game to capture her third win of the tournament. She notched 11 strikeouts, while allowing only one earned run on four hits. Moore led the Golden Tigers' offense with two hits and two RBIs, while Garland added the team's only other hit.