CHICAGO | When it comes to thriving under pressure, the Valparaiso softball team sure knows how to deliver.
The Crusaders swept Youngstown State in two games on Saturday afternoon to win the Horizon League tournament championship and earn a second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
Valparaiso won 2-1 in Saturday’s opener to force a winner-take-all title game in which the Crusaders opened up a seven-run lead before holding on for an 11-9 victory.
The pair of wins marked the second straight year that Valparaiso needed five straight victories to come out of the loser’s bracket to win the conference tournament.
“I think losing (on Wednesday) loosened us up,” Valparaiso coach Jordan Stevens said. “Then we had a brief lapse thinking that we could coast to the win toward the end.”
Janelle Bouchard had five RBIs in the first four innings of Saturday’s title game to help the Crusaders open up a 9-2 lead before Youngstown State came roaring back to cut the deficit to one. Valparaiso added an insurance run in the sixth inning and freshman pitcher Sierra Pico threw a perfect seventh inning to secure the victory.
Bouchard was named the tournament MVP after hitting .529 (9-for-17) with 10 RBI in the six tournament games. The freshman catcher dented the UIC scoreboard in center field when she hit a two-run home run in the third inning that gave the Crusaders the lead for good.
“This is honestly a dream come true,” Bouchard said. “People thought this was going to be a rebuilding year and didn’t give us a lot of credit, but I’m so proud of all of the girls on the team. We came together and we won.”
The Crusaders (34-25) got plenty of big performances from their freshmen on Saturday, including pitcher Taylor Weissenhofer, who won both games to improve to 20-11 on the season. Valparaiso also got an inspired performance from its oldest player, fifth-year senior Joylyn Ichiyama. The third baseman had three hits and scored three runs in the championship game, but it was her two-run home run in the first inning of Saturday’s opener that helped get the Crusaders to the final game.
“We had to attack early and come out and set the tone,” Ichiyama said. “(Youngstown State’s Casey) Crozier is such a great pitcher that we knew we had to get on her early.”
Crozier, the Valparaiso native, took both of the losses for the Penguins (19-27). The junior pitcher made just one mistake in the first game when Ichiyama belted her home run over the right-field wall. Valparaiso got on Crozier early in the second game and the 2010 Valparaiso High graduate was chased in the fourth inning.
“We weren’t just going to be happy with getting to the second game,” Stevens said. “We needed to make the most out of every opportunity. I give a lot of credit to Youngstown State. They fought hard and wanted to win just as much as we did.”