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A spirit that is not afraid

Ellis breaks freshman record, Auburn earns narrow victory in game one of NCAA Regionals

With the help of two Bri Ellis long balls, Auburn softball edged out the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns 4-3 for a victory in game one of the Clemson Regional in Clemson, South Carolina.

With the win, Auburn will go on to play Clemson, who beat UNCW 9-0 in the winner's bracket on Saturday. Not only did Clemson shutout UNCW, but it no-hit UNCW in five innings.

Although Louisiana took a quick, early lead, and it tied the game up twice after Auburn took the lead, the Tigers never panicked or seemed worried. The team showed their determination that has been built up after losing close games throughout the season.

"It's pretty frustrating knowing that we had the ability to win every game we played, and we just couldn't come through with it," Ellis said. " So, we got together as a team and decided we're not going to let that happen anymore... We just need to come together and play some better ball, and we did that today."

Auburn played without freshman Jesse Blaine, who hasn't played in its last two games with an apparent injury. Without their usual leadoff hitter, the Tigers were forced to change up the lineup. Lindsey Garcia took over the leadoff spot and went 0-for-3, but second in the lineup, Carlee McCondichie made up for it by going 2-for-3 with two runs scored. 

Abbey Smith took Blaine's spot in right field and batted ninth, putting another freshman into the lineup. Although Auburn recorded just six hits as a team off of Louisiana pitcher Meghan Schorman, Penta held Louisiana to five, and Ellis' two-homer day was enough to boost Auburn to victory.

Auburn head coach Mickey Dean said defense is key in winning games in this regional that has a lot of talented hitting, and Auburn proved that with several key catches in the outfield late in the game.

"Our defense played just well enough to allow our offense to win the ballgame," Dean said.  "If there's an area we can improve in, it's knowing what we're going to do with the ball ahead of time and taking care of the ball."

In the sixth inning, Auburn maintained its one-run lead with two clutch grabs by Lindsey Garcia and Makayla Packer. With one out, a line drive to left field forced Garcia to making a running snag while stretching out and bumping into the wall. That catch likely prevented extra-bases for Louisiana, and Packer took away another one next with a running grab in the left-center to end the inning.

Starting pitcher Penta, who normally thrives off of strikeouts, was able to go the distance by pitching to contact. She threw 107 pitches and struck out just five as opposed to one walk while earning the win to boost her record to 24-9. She got the final six of seven hitters out on groundouts and flyouts.

"A good day is 10 strikeouts (or more)," Penta said. "Today was one of those days where you rely on your defense... I did not have my best stuff."

Things got off to a fast start with runs in each of the first three frames of the game.

Louisiana set the aggressive tone right away, swinging at and depositing the first pitch into shallow left field for a single. Although Auburn pitcher Maddie Penta struck out the next batter, Louisiana's leadoff batter bolted for second base and then advanced to third after the throw to second dribbled away. 

Putting the Ragin' Cajuns on the board first, the next batter hit a deep fly ball to center field, and the runner tagged up on the flout and came in to score the first run of the game. This seemed to be a huge boost for the Ragin' Cajuns, who were previously 37-2 after scoring the first run of the game.

However, Ellis and Auburn were not intimidated. With two outs in her first regional at-bat of her collegiate career, she mashed a two-run home run to left field for her 19th long ball of the season. That homer put her in the lead for home runs in a season by an Auburn freshman, taking the crown from Kasey Cooper.

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"This is the kind of stuff you dream as a kid and picture yourself doing," Ellis said. "I'm really proud of myself for actually doing it, and I'm really thankful for coach Dean for letting me be myself and flourish as a player and grow and be able to make adjustments when I want and kind of do my own thing. It really paid off."

Heading into the second with a 2-1 Auburn lead, the scoring continued, and Louisiana retied the score at two. After a leadoff double, Penta retired the next two, but could not end the inning unscathed as Louisiana knocked another double down the left field line to score for its second straight inning.

The next two frames, the offenses finally slowed down and the score remained tied for a minute. This allowed the starting pitching to get in a little bit of a groove.

The groove didn't last long, though, as the Tigers reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the third. After McCondichie got her second hit of the day on a bunt single, she stole second and moved to third after the throw to second scrambled into shallow center field. Nelia Peralta then dropped a bloop single into left field to allow McCondichie to score her second run of the day.

The Ragin' Cajuns weren't going to go down that easy, though. After a walk and a single started the fifth inning, they laid down a sacrifice bunt to get runners on second and third with one away. A wild pitch from Penta allowed a run to score, but she shut things down from there, striking out two in a row to limit the damage and keep the score tied at three. 

The bottom of the sixth is when Auburn delivered the decisive blow. Ellis, this time to straightaway center field, hit her second bomb of the day to put Auburn up 4-3. This put her home run total at 20 on the season.

That was all the run support Penta needed, as she went back out for the top of the seventh and recorded three straight flyouts to slam the door.

With the win in game one of the Regionals, Auburn still has to lose twice to end its regional run. It will get ready to play Clemson, the No. 1 seed in the Clemson Regional bracket, tomorrow at noon CST. The starting pitcher for that contest remains unknown, as Penta threw 107 pitches in the game. 

Penta has been a workhorse all season, so 107 pitches isn't overly taxing, but Auburn's next match is less than 19 hours after this one concluded, and if it loses that game, it will play an elimination game with the winner of Louisiana and UNCW later in the day.

Auburn has pitchers KK Dismukes, Shelby Lowe and Samantha Yarborough fresh and at its disposal as it moves into game two of the regional in its first ever matchup with Clemson. For now, Dean had no answers for who will start in the circle tomorrow.

"(Clemson is) a good ball club," Dean said. "They have poor. They have speed. They don't beat themselves defensively and they're well-coached. That's what makes the post-season fun."

Noah Griffith | Assistant Sports Editor

Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.

Twitter: @NoahGG01

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