A pair of dominant pitching performances got the 2014 season started for the Jacksonville State softball team on Friday, when Tiffany Harbin and Casey Akenberger each no-hit their opponents in leading the Gamecocks to mercy-rule wins over Northern Kentucky and Mississippi Valley State.
Harbin, a senior with several career records already in her portfolio, struck out 12 of the 16 batters she faced in a 9-0 win over NKU in the season opener to set the tone for the day and Akenberger followed suit. A sophomore who saw limited action as a reserve in 2013, she faced the minimum in handing MVSU the 8-0 defeat, striking out two and getting nine ground ball outs.
"On Opening Day it's always good to get off on the right foot, but you never expect to throw two no-hitters," JSU head coach Jana McGinnis said. "I'm very proud of the work both Tiff and Casey have put in to get ready for this season and that paid off today."
Harbin's gem was the fifth no-no of her illustrious career in a Gamecock uniform. The Hazel Green, Ala., native entered the day as the school's career strikeout leader and ran that total up to 718 by the time she left the circle with her 60th win, another milestone. She joins Jill Wilcoxson (64 from 1998-01) as the only two players in school history to record 60 wins in a career. It was also the first time JSU has opened the season with a no-hitter and the first time the Gamecocks have thrown two in the same day, at any point in the year.
She was in command from the first pitch, striking out the first eight batters she faced before a pop up ended the third inning. She had three balls on just two batters in the game and struck them both out, and the only blemish on her line was a hit batter to lead off the fourth, a runner she stranded on first base. After striking out the side in the fifth to put the finishing touches on the no-hitter, she had thrown just 66 pitches, 44 for strikes.
"Tiff had a lot of her pitches working today," McGinnis said. "She was very efficient. When you see her getting ahead 0-2 and 1-2 on a lot of batters, you know her stuff is working and it seemed like she was in that position the whole game. It was a great start for her and for us as a team."
Akenberger's gem was a little different. A less overpowering pitcher than Harbin, she forced the Delta Devils to pound the ball into the ground throughout her start. Just her second career shutout and first no-no, the Bowling Green, Ohio, native erased her only blemish, a leadoff walk in the third, with a double play ball to end the inning. Her start was something McGinnis said she deserved.
"She worked this offseason," McGinnis added. "She has herself fit and mentally strong. She told us when she left after last season that she was going to come back a better pitcher, both mentally and physically. You love to see those kids that put in the extra time it takes taste success. She deserves this."
Overlooked on a day dominated in the circle by the Gamecocks was an offense that scored 17 runs, 14 of which were earned in barely over eight offensive innings. JSU hit .487 on a day that saw 10 players record at least one hit and seven get at least two. Junior and All-Ohio Valley Conference performer Sara Borders went 4-for-6 and scored four runs, while sophomore Cadi Oliver drove in five runs on the day.
Four newcomers recorded their first career hits on Friday, including a trio of freshmen in Stephanie Lewis, Taylor Sloan and Jamie McGuire that each had two hits. In all, players making their debuts for JSU went a combined 7-for-11 at the plate.
"You always have a lot of questions at the start of the season, and one of those is how your newcomers will be once the season starts," McGinnis said. "I am very proud of our new girls today. They made a difference for us right away, and our veterans did a great job today, too."
After Harbin struck out the side in a quick top of the first the JSU bats got things going quickly. Five-straight singles started the JSU first, including one in Taylor Sloan's first career at bat, giving the Gamecocks a quick 2-0 lead. By the time the Norse got out of the first inning, 12 Gamecocks had come to the plate and eight of them had scored. Sophomore Ella Denes started the inning with a single up the middle and then had the biggest blow late with a bases-loaded double that made it a 7-0 JSU lead.
An Oliver sac fly in the second would be all the offense JSU would need while Harbin put things in cruise control in the circle. She ended the game with a dozen strikeouts and only allowing three NKU batters to put the ball in play to get off to a 1-0 start to the season.
Alex Caudill took the loss for NKU after allowing six runs on five hits and a walk without recording an out in the first inning. Alyssa Enrique threw four innings, allowing three runs, two earned, on four hits. The Gamecocks didn't strike out in the game.
Akenberger also got some support early, thanks to a one-out double from junior Savannah Sloan that led to her scoring on a Delta Devil error. The one run would be all she would need, but JSU started tacking on insurance in the third.
A five-run inning put the game away with Akenberger in the circle and was started by a leadoff walk from Savannah Sloan, who stole second and scored on another fielding miscue by MVSU. Senior Kalee Tabor kept it going with an RBI double, and then Oliver opened it up with a two-run triple. Sophomore Casey Craig capped the inning with an RBI single that gave JSU a 6-0 lead.
Oliver made it 7-0 in the fourth on her second sac fly of the day and Borders put the nail in the mercy-rule win with a walk-off bases-loaded walk in the fifth.
Borders and McGuire each went 2-for-3 in the finale, with Borders scoring three times.
Cassandra Rivera suffered the loss in the circle after surrendering seven runs, five earned, on nine hits in four innings of work. She struck out two and walked four before making way for Tenna Patterson, who allowed a run on one hit and three walks to finish the game.
The Gamecocks continue play in the Mississippi State Bulldog Kickoff Classic on Saturday with a pair of afternoon games. They play the host Bulldogs at 3 p.m. before facing MVSU again at 5:30 p.m. They will wrap up the weekend on Sunday against MSU at 1:30 p.m.
Courtesy: JSU Sports Information